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Posts Tagged ‘worldbuilding’


In the Ottoman Empire, bathing was not just a matter of personal care – it was an opportunity for socialising, display and gossip – much like promenading in a fashionable park on a pleasant afternoon.

Turkish Bathscape

When I wanted my protagonist to have a bit of girl-time with her closest friend, Derry, it seemed the obvious location.  Of course, it also makes for a brilliant excuse to visit one for myself!  I’d like to go to Istanbul itself next year, but in the meantime I’ve found out that there are a couple of ‘Turkish baths’ in nearby and there are various others across the UK.  I think I’ll be booking one as a birthday treat!

The Turkish bath became popular in Britain in the 17th century where they were often combined with coffee houses.  These bagnios, as they were known, were a common sight on London streets and the makers of Channel 4’s City of Vice agree – you’ll recognise them from the first episode.  However, by the mid-18th century the word bagnio had rather different associations – it was a place to meet prostitutes and rent out a room for a few hours with no awkward questions asked!  Ooh er!

However, this didn’t put off those oppressed Victorians – or perhaps it attracted them – for the Turkish bath enjoyed a renaissance in 19th century Britain and it is this English take on the hammam that can be still be visited today across the country.

But let’s get back to the original hammam…

As an everyday part of Ottoman life, the hammam had (and still has) a whole ritual surrounding it complete with the paraphernalia and terminology.

Your first port of call is a small cubicle where you undress, don a pestemal (a brightly coloured, often checked, fabric wrap) and slip on a pair of wooden clogs, or takunyalar.  These clogs were a great opportunity for showing off your wealth with intricate carving and gold or mother of pearl inlay.  They are clearly visible in the images above and below.

The bath proper begins in a hot, humid room, the hararet, where you relax on a heated marble platform (called the gobek tasi), working up the maximum sweat with minimum effort!  Once your attendant has deemed you sweaty enough, you’re led to basin to be scrubbed and washed to within an inch of your life.

Next you might have your hair washed (perhaps with some divine shampoo from your richly decorated tarak kutusu, or ‘comb box’) or request a Turkish massage.  I’m feeling quite envious at this point!  Mmm … massage …

But enough of that – onward to the cold room, or sogukluk.  Here you have a chance to cool down, drink tea and generally relax … Sounds like just the time for checking out who else is bathing today, how richly embroidered their pestemal is and what they’re chatting about.

And when you’re ready, it’s time to get dressed and return to the real world refreshed and glowing with cleanliness.  Sounds lovely!

Finally, I’d like to leave you with the inspiration for this post today – my usual check of BBC news gave me the unexpected but most welcome pleasure of seeing a traditional hammam still in operation*.  Even more impressive – this particular bath has been in operation since it was first opened in 1741.  The light streaming through tiny windows in the domed roof is typical of hammam architecture and is simply beautiful.

Fingers crossed, I’ll one day get to visit a hammam for myself, but if you’ve been, I’d love to hear about your experience!

* Warning – this video contains graphic scenes of a semi-naked middle-aged reporter guy.
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So last time, I mentioned this other addition that I made.  It was a brief explanation of my magic system.  BRIEF being the operative!

The currently direction of commercial fantasy fiction is away from the excesses of worldbuilding so beloved of Tolkein and his acolytes.  Check out what Joe Abercrombie has to say on the subject of Tolkeinesque worldbuilding.  It’s not about not doing the worldbuilding – inventing nations, peoples, cultures and attitudes is a vital part of fantasy fiction – it’s about not making the story and the characters subservient to the world.  I’m going to straight-out quote Joe Abercrombie here, as he puts it so well:

“It’s the equivalent of a film producer blowing his entire budget on sets and costume he’s not even going to use in the picture, and fondly imagining that no-one will therefore notice the abysmal script, acting, camerawork, editing and direction. Of course, there are writers who come up with weird, and wonderful, and magical settings which fascinate and enthral the reader. But, for me, those are only of real interest as long as the characters, and the dialogue, and the plots are on the money as well.” (See the above-linked interview in SFX Magazine.)

I know all the ins and outs of my magic system, but is it relevant to the story or of much interest to any reader that magic was first used back in the year blah blah blah by so-and-so?  No.  So it’s not going in the novel.

The important part of a novel is who does what to whom, or, what happens and to whom does it happen.  Character is vital, irrelevant history is not.

Having said that, a fantasy world is, by definition, different to ours, and the reader needs to feel that they have a grasp of what’s going on and where it’s going on.  Even in contemporary urban fantasy, such as The Southern Vampire Mysteries (AKA, the True Blood TV series), there are differences to our world that the reader (or viewer) needs to understand… like vampires…

True Blood

… and the reader needs a certain amount of explanation.  But the reader doesn’t need all the explanation, and they certainly don’t need a massive infodump.

I suppose the point I am trying to make is that fantasy writers need to walk a thin line by giving a sense of their world by showing the important and relevant elements of that world rather than over-explaining that world in mind-numbing detail.  There are shades of grey that tend towards more worldbuilding or less, but the recent trends are towards novels that concentrate on telling a damn good story with some great characters.

And that is no bad thing.  For too long, fantasy has stood in Tolkein’s shadow and grown stale there, with too many cliched characters wandering from A to B and infodumping all the way.

It’s quite handy, then, that this new kind of fantasy is very much to my taste.  I’m attempting to give brief hints of the world and its magic, revealing relevant pieces of information with little touches here and there, but, as I’m finding, it’s a delicate balancing act.

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