Forgetting about plumbing: why the worldbuilding details matter

Fantasy worldbuilding can be a lot of fun. But it can also show the writer’s blind spots. Some of the hoariest fantasy cliches — stuff like riding a horse full gallop for 10 hours and stopping to whip up a quick stew — come from writers who’ve never ridden a horse and never actually attempted to stew meat from scratch. Either that or they just didn’t care about accuracy in their writing, for whatever reason.

But I’ve always found that accurate details are what make a world really believable. The mundane little touches like how far a horse can travel in a day before it gets tired, or how long it actually takes to make a stew. Okay, as an animal-loving foodie, I’m definitely biased on those two. Let’s go with something smaller like, say, cleaning. Sure, cleaning! You know, that activity we have running water and scented, anti-bacterial soaps and all kinds of plastic objects to help us with? And if we’re too busy and/or lazy to do that, we can buy a dishwashing machine and fill it with chemical compounds!


Picture is from the Wikihow article about how to wash dishes. We have a world-wide information network that can teach us to remove grease from an object. Kind of mind-boggling, huh?

When we’re used to this, we tend to gloss over other time periods and ways of life. It’s easy to assume that in a fantasy world, things are clean when they need to be because it’s fantasy, could we please not think about how things stay clean? Can we just watch a fantasy movie where the peasants wear beautiful clothes and have clean hair? Unless it’s a gritty dark fantasy where people quite pointedly use filthy objects and die of disease. I don’t know, I just think moderation is interesting and a little thought can make it happen. A few passing mentions of cleaning can either support the comfortable “everything is clean and not crawling with germs” illusion, or just provide fodder to form your own opinion of what this world is like to actually live in. Maybe it’s a little gross. Then again, I’ve met people who consider it “disgusting” to pick up food with a freshly-washed hand. Everything’s relative.

I remember reading a historical story set in Britain in the 19th century, where the main characters were having a serious conversation while finishing breakfast. And one character took the dirty dishes to the sand pail to clean them. That was just so startlingly interesting for me. I hadn’t even thought about how people washed the dishes in heavily populated old cities where the water came from just a handful of wells!


With a bucket of this, apparently!

Because I’m a first-world Canadian with all the plumbing and fresh water I could ever want. Water supply isn’t even close to an issue for me. And it’s not an issue for many other fantasy fans living comfortable lives in cities. I do, however, recalled times I went camping with my parents and we washed dishes in the river. We had plenty of soap and water but the river’s plentiful sand was still a great help in cleaning. On top of that experience, logic says that sand is abrasive and able to absorb grease, so yeah, I guess you could use just sand if you didn’t have plentiful water. It’s a bit of solid fact contributing to the experience of some other time and place.

I try to touch on stuff like this in the Stories of Aligare. Not in some tedious way where the story stops so I can vomit up a chunk of research I did on historical cleansing techniques. Nah, just in details like characters actually having to fetch water from the river, or acknowledging that soap must be made by someone, not just obtained from the grocery store. Some folks in Aligare do opt to clean their dishes with sand, instead of getting a bunch of perfectly good water dirty.

But the smoke cleared quickly enough and his cave home only held a little of the charred inadequacy smell. […] Pausing, [Felixi] dumped a cupful of cleaning sand into his damnable cookpan. For later.

Render, a story of Aligare, Chapter 11

Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter. How Felixi of Velgarro gets his pans clean is one of the least pressing issues in the book. But if I saw a practical, no-nonsense fantasy character dragging lots of water up a mountain so he could wash dishes like a privileged Western human does, I know I’d raise an eyebrow. The weird mix of cultural assumptions wouldn’t sit right with me. And I don’t expect any less awareness out of my readers.

2 Comments on “Forgetting about plumbing: why the worldbuilding details matter”

  1. Elisa Nuckle says:

    You’ve given me a lot to think about when I edit my fantasy and science fiction works. For scifi it’s in the opposite direction though. What do we do that could become outdated?

    • Hope it’s a helpful way of looking at your worlds, Elisa! I bet a few altered details on seemingly mundane things could even make for striking alternate versions of our Earth.

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