Descriptive Worldbuilding

When I was writing The Duchess, Her Maid, The Groom & Their Lover, I was doing a lot of my worldbuilding on the spot, whenever I felt something was needed.

I do think about aspects of the world before I begin writing, but probably just as much comes along in the middle, or during revisions, when I suddenly realize, “I never described this room, and that would set the scene better.”

If I’m in a hurry, or just can’t decide how to “dress” a room, I sometimes use the internet to find items I think would be appropriate for my setting and story. I use the pictures I find to inspire me and decide how to describe the often-vague images in my mind. The octopus lamp that illustrates this post is one such. I’d already decided I wanted octopuses to be a theme of Maxime’s duchy, and had planned to give the decor a mingled Mediterranean/Asian feel. This lamp gave me the idea to have oil lamps as described below. Sea creatures of other kinds would also be popular there, as the duchy’s economics depend on its port. In addition, I wanted to give the duchy’s aesthetics an Art Nouveau feel, for two reasons. I like that aesthetic; and decor can subtly show how this duchy is different from the oppressive duchy shown earlier.

Camille’s palace furnishings are shown as heavier and more medieval in style, mixed with eighteenth-century French decor, that I intended to hark back to Louis XIV and the French revolution. Sometimes I was even more explicit: …the corridor of red marble was lit by yellow beeswax candles, sweet-smelling and thick as his forearm, in gold sconces shaped as unearthly smooth disembodied feminine hands, braceleted in cruel red stones. I actually saw a picture of a lamp in the shape of a woman’s hand, though it wasn’t as disturbing as the sconces I wrote about! I looked at a whole variety of pictures of medieval and Renaissance beds.

All of my ideas about the various duchies, plus looking at images online, yielded these descriptive passages for the scenes set in Maxime’s duchy:

[Henri] entered the room, which flickered with oil lamps behind colored glass, red and gold and sunset orange. On a second look, he saw the glass had been blown into the shapes of bulbous octopuses with bronze tentacles and bright bubbles encircled by bronze dolphins.

He’d left his red and black lacquered portable writing desk on a bamboo stand nearby.

She strolled with Captain Leung…up a short staircase to a tower room filled with padded divans in shades of cream and buttery yellow, bamboo tea tables, and potted plants, some large enough to be called small trees, others draping vinelike from the walls and ceiling.

Luckily for me, I’m using some of the same settings for The Duke & the Pirate Queen; that saved me a little effort when I had scenes taking place in Maxime’s ducal palace.

Published by Victoria Janssen

Victoria Janssen’s writing showcases her voracious lifelong love of books. She reads over 120 new books each year, especially historical romance, fantasy, and space opera, and incorporates these genres into her erotic fiction. Her first erotic novel, The Duchess, Her Maid, The Groom and Their Lover (Harlequin Spice, December 2008), was translated into French and German. Her second Spice novel, The Moonlight Mistress (December 2009), was translated into Italian and nominated for a RT Reviews Reviewers’ Choice Award. Her third novel is The Duke & The Pirate Queen (December 2010). She has also published erotic short stories as Elspeth Potter. When not writing, Victoria conducts research in libraries and graveyards, lectures about writing and selling erotica, and speaks at literary conventions on topics such as paranormal romance, urban fantasy, erotic science fiction/fantasy, and the empowerment of women through unconventional means. Her daily writing blog features professional writing and marketing tips, genre discussion, book reviews, and author interviews. She also guest blogs for Heroes & Heartbreakers and The Criminal Element. She lives in Philadelphia.

5 replies on “Descriptive Worldbuilding”

  1. LOVE the octopus and how it translated onto the page. This is an extremely useful post for people looking for visual guides for their writing.

  2. Victoria, thanks for this. i think it's a subtle but very logical (and thus effective) world building trick: if you have different families/opposing realms, give them their own styles, and make those styles fit their philopsophies. fantastic.

  3. Thanks Jeannie and Mima!

    I actually got this tip from a friend (who has a really, really good visual memory). It was like a lightning bolt to the brain.

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