Coffee, Tea, and Worldbuilding

One component of worldbuilding that’s often forgotten is background economics.

Take coffee, for example. Coffee originated in Africa. It wasn’t readily available in Europe until after 1616, and didn’t start to be cultivated on a large scale by Europeans until near the end of that century. Chocolate and tea both made it to Europe a little earlier, not much. Yet how many times do characters in fantasy novels, who are living in thinly-veiled Medieval Europe, drink coffee? Or if not coffee, some made-up beverage that is really coffee with a name like caf or cof or possibly c’ff’ee.

I admit most people won’t notice or care, because after all, “it’s fantasy.” But now I’m aware of the historical issue, every time I see it, I’m thrown out of the story. (So I’ve shared it with you! You can share my peeve!) And I think “it’s fantasy” is not a valid excuse. Fantasy needs to be more realistic, not less. If the details aren’t right, the world falls apart.

We, as modern people used to modern travel, forget that many things commonly eaten today all over the world originated in North America. Before that, they were not eaten in Europe. Eleventh-century Italians did not eat food with tomato sauce. They had no tomatoes.

It’s easy to remember things such as copper, silver, and gold coinage. But me, I wonder where does the coffee come from? And if they have coffee, who sold it to them? How did it get there? What are their relations with the people who sold it to them? Or did they steal the coffee?

…Maybe I’ll go have a cup.

About Victoria Janssen

Victoria Janssen’s 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. Her blog features professional writing and marketing tips, genre discussion, book reviews, and occasional author interviews.
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2 Responses to Coffee, Tea, and Worldbuilding

  1. Megan says:

    Tea is a big one for me. It’s the drink of choice for a lot of fantasy, and I always wonder where it comes from, since there is no mention of trade with a semi-tropical culture.

    Also: potatoes are native to South America. They haven’t been European staples for much longer than coffee. Yet somehow every pseudo-medieval peasant grows them by the bushel in fantasy.

    But, economy aside, re-naming “exotic” foods just sounds silly. Apples are called apples, so why is coffee called “khaffee” or something equally silly? We can all tell what it is, for goodness sake.

  2. I think someone, somewhere, thought it was a good idea to give a fantasy “feel” by the funny names, and lots of writers adopted it because it was easy, and they thought since so many others did it, it must be the thing to do.

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