Tuesday, May 24, 2011


Ah yes, the topic I've long been avoiding. What the hell happens in this story? Let's put some thought into this, shall we?

I've been alternating between two schools of thought on this point. On the one hand, the original idea was that the lie, and the catastrophe, would be immediately relevant to the story. That the catastrophe would be coming, or have come. The characters would be acting to overcome the catastrophe following the wisdom laid out in the holy book immortalizing the lie, and realizing over time that said wisdom is a bunch of bunk, leaving them without a map.

Then at a certain point, I decided that seemed unwieldy and would require me to explain all about the lie and the catastrophe, which was territory I didn't necessarily want to get into. I thought that the story could follow L. as she does her own investigations, her own thinking, independent of the catastrophe. Looking back on it now, that seems lazy, frankly. That's what the damn world is about, so why shouldn't it be what the story is about?

So, if that is the plot, what happens?

We can keep the war in the backstory. H. and C. are mercenaries in the service of the Duke trying to reunite the country of which the City is a part. L. is a servant of the Goddess, whose church is based in the City, who becomes involved with the mercenaries as the religion dips its toes into politics on the city's behalf.

It just occurred to me, though, that I'm approaching this the wrong way. I'm approaching this in a role-playing way, if you would. Come up with some character concepts then build a story around them. No, this novel is a story. Let's get the bones of that worked out and see which characters we need, hmm?

Ok ok ok. So. L. is the center, so she stays. A young woman. She's virtuous, intelligent, poised, outspoken, and brutally honest with herself, at least when it comes to ideas.  She's a part of a church - a nun, really. She's considered a woman of promise, a young up-and-comer, looked up to by her peers and treasured by her superiors - but also envied by rivals and frightening to authority figures who don't appreciate her point of view. Her life is mapped out: steady advancement, debate and scholarship, devotion and good works. It's not a quiet life by any means, it's a busy and accomplished one, but there is a plan.

But everything is thrown into confusion. Those plans are disrupted, and the life she could lead falls under threat - from the catastrophe's return. Now, the catastrophe shouldn't return, because as I've described, that leads to such chaos that a considered hero's journey becomes nearly impossible - there genuinely would be no opportunity, let alone time, for a measured debate over the merits of arguments for and against the lie. Rather, there's a clear reason to expect the return of the catastrophe. Let us say, a flair up of catastrophic activity.

A mini-catastrophe occurs. Mysterious deaths, unexplained phenomenon, etc. Wizards are able to confirm that what occurred was the result of spiritual activity. There's always been a "prophecy movement" in the church, and all of those people come forward and say, "See, the end really is nigh." And the thing is, L. is like, "Oh, come on, you're full of it, you were just as surprised as we were," but not everybody has the same reaction. And that's what sets the wheels turning for L. Given that a lot of people can be convinced that these madmen and -women really know what's going on, maybe a lot of people could be convinced of a lot of things.

But of course, that's not the end of the story. L. is asked to take part in a substantial way in an effort to prevent / prepare for the catastrophe, but as she tries to actualize the text, and the interpretations, of the writing about the next catastrophe, holes appear.

More to follow.

Monday, May 23, 2011

And another dude

I've always had in mind this triumvirate, so let's get them all out now.

C. is my "leading man." L. is my real protagonist, but C. is the beard, the red herring. L.'s heroism is about honesty and thinking and careful scholarship, hardly sexy. C. has all the classic hero's attributes. C. is young, handsome, dashing, skilful, physical. C. is, furthermore, generous and openhearted, pious and respectful. He's literally a good guy, very much by choice and design. He wants to be "the hero" - in fact, I think "the Hero" in the Lie is his personal totem, the model to which he aspires.

He's an upper-class gentleman, not from the City but from the country to which it belongs and quite aligned with it in his views. The Goddess and her Hero are foremost in his devotions, but he's religiously naive. Not for him abstract discussions of the Goddess' intent or the Hero's nature, let alone spirited discussion of inconsistencies in the Lie. He's a believer in a simple, trusting way that isn't really all that in the spirit of the Goddess - which really should be a big red flag to L. that something is wrong, off, when someone can have this kind of unconsidered, reflexive devotion to a deity who is supposedly all about knowledge and truth.

Like H., he's a fighter. Unlike H., he's not a soldier first, but a duelist. He loves chivalry, the idea of honor among killers, the idea of two fighters facing off. He's very good with light swords. On the battlefield he's a great fighter, but it's not really his element. He's definitely stronger and more able than H., but H would probably beat him in a fight in earnest, because C. would fight clean.

He holds L. in awe, because she's devoted to the Goddess. Probably to the point of not seeing her faults. That comes naturally to him, however; he's a kind person and he doesn't see anyone's faults, or if he does he doesn't take them seriously.

Let's meet some other damn person

H. is loosely based off of an H. I know in real life. I picture him as a rival, perhaps even an villain, but one with a not completely unsympathetic point of view.

In contrast to L., H. is a man (definitely a man) of the world. H. is cynical, ambitious, wealthy, and selfish. He's not amoral, but he's not one for causes or crusades. Anything he does he intends as an avenue towards something he wants. He's very good at what he does, however - which is a mix of business and soldiering. H. is a mercenary, or more properly a condotierri, a gentleman adventurer. He makes his life not so much by using the sword as holding the sword, by being paid "to fight or not fight," as Varric might have it.

His vice is really sloth, as that might seem to imply, not greed; put another way, he's ambitious but not driven. He is slovenly in some sense. He eats too much, drinks too much, he's slightly fat and out-of-shape for a soldier (though strong and a good fighter). His hygiene is less than perfect, he's sexually crude, sexist, and a great lover of prostitutes, slave women and less-straightforwardly "kept" women. Matrimony is a distasteful idea to him.

Despite his penchant for pleasure and soft-living, he's not above a little excitement and adventure, provided he doesn't sacrifice too much or enter into too much danger.

He's no duelist; he prefers to have others do his fighting, but when he must arm himself he's purely professional about it. He prefers heavy fighting and a heavy sword, and a solid pike if he can get his hand on it. He has no sense of honor or chivalry beyond what's convenient.

He's not from the City and considers their urbane, orderly ways somewhat quaint (perhaps ironically). He's from a much more rural, impoverished land of an extensive fighting aristocracy protecting a desperately poor peasantry, which he regards as a much more honest arrangement than the subtle political and economic distinctions of the city's classes.

He holds the goddess and her cult in high respect, but mostly as a) a goddess who can do something for him and b) a church that has (in his eyes) conned itself into a great deal of earthly power. It's not that he disbelieves the lie - far from it. He's just the sort of person who knows in the pit of his stomach that "it" will never happen in his lifetime, so he doesn't really concern himself with matters of life and death.

I like the idea that spiritually he literally worships a symbol of his family's standing - perhaps ancestor worship, a fairly rarified form tied to his culture and class?

One of his defining attributes is an amazing sense of self-assurance. He really thinks that he's the best, and that he's on some level invincible.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


L is my protagonist. I just realized that.

The story is about truth. Specifically, it's about error. It's about learning to question because you realize that you aren't perfect and you aren't right. What's important in the strictest sense isn't daring deeds or a strong arm, but honesty and a determination to find out what's real and what's right, and that's what L is all about. The story calls out for a spiritual rather than a physical hero, and L fits the bill.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

(The) religion

So we have the lie. The lie was promulgated by a sect, a cult, a religious organization. This organization has since become an institution, a prosperous and powerful edifice which influences the life of almost everyone alive (in the area of the world that buys into the lie).

I'm wary of having this sect be monotheistic, or even worshipful of a jealous god who frowns on the worship of other gods, because those things turn this sect (in the medieval mileu) into a proxy for the Catholic church. This sect should be differentiated from Catholicism. To do that:

a) this sect will be devoted to a goddess.
b) this goddess will not be jealous.

Gods in general

Those two imply a few things. First of all, obviously there are other gods. These shouldn't be too uniform; that's a trap. It's not like there's a family and they all come from the mythic Originator in a neat line of succession. There are different and frequently contradictory stories about them and their exploits. Their "portfolios" tend to overlap in odd, frustrating ways, like the way that Aphrodite rules love and Hera rules marriage, or the way that there are five or six gods you can appeal to for victory in battle, or how there are gods you appeal to only in a very specific circumstance - during a marriage ceremony, for instance. Remember syncretism; Mercury = Odin for the ancient Romans. There should be a feeling of gods having different faces in different countries, and this should be somewhat confusing - but some gods really are unique to their culture (like Isis), which allows for the feeling that certain god is "foreign" as opposed to other "local" gods.

The Goddess and society

Gods were very important to social order in the ancient and medieval world. So let's talk about how religion fits into the social order of the city.

So this is one of the places in this world where the lie is most powerful. To me, that says that this place always worshipped our goddess. In some places, she was a minor figure or even a new one who suddenly gained prominence after the catastrophe, but here she was always powerful. The idea that occurred to me just now which I'm loving is that she's a goddess associated with wisdom and truth, especially the latter. There are a few reasons I'm really liking that idea:
  • It means that her priests and acolytes would likely be the kind of people, people who respected information, that would come up with the lie in the first place.
  • It lends itself towards this faith having the preoccupation with records, text, and criticism that I've been envisioning, as seen in the character of L.
  • It fits with the idea of her having been an important but not central character in many places in the past, before the catastrophe.
  • It lends a certain narrative grandeur -and a certain piquant flavor - to the idea of her having fought to end the catastrophe - truth vs. evil, light vs. darkness.
  • It's just so damn Minitrue, right?
  • It fits in thematically with the idea that people can have a more gnostic, personal relationship based on truth and understanding with this goddess than with other gods.
Ok, so, the Goddess has always been powerful and prominent in this part of the world, this culture group. That means that she was a civic institution, and the institution has only gotten stronger with time. That also means that her "portfolio" is extremely broad here, much broader than in other places. There are no doubt citywide festivals, huge temples, statues, as well as small shrines devoted to particular aspects and faces of the goddess. Here more than in other places she's woven into everyday life - which, no doubt, has the odd side effect of making her more mundane at the same time it makes you more important. In other places, she probably has a somewhat magical air. She has holy books and mysteries and acolytes in places where most gods just have a little shrine on the outskirts of town.

The Cult in detail

In the city, though, she's huge. Her statues are in the squares, everybody says a quick prayer to her at some point during a busy week, her name is on everybody's lips when they make oaths. That makes her prominent, but less mysterious. The average citizen thinks of her much more like a "regular" god, some distant authority that needs to be appeased. A greater segment of the population is devoted to her, however; there are acolytes, and initiates, and priests, people whose whole lives are devoted to the Goddess. There are lots of them.

This is rare in most places, and this is what really sets the Goddess apart in the "modern" (for lack of a batter term) day. Most temples and shrines have priests, a few individuals who serve the god. These people either take on the role of priest because they're wealthy (in the Greco-Roman tradition) or are publicly supported or live off of offerings given by supplicants. At the fringes, for the lesser or most local gods, there's an element of marketing involved: you need to attract enough supplicants to live off of the offerings. That opens up the idea - I don't want to make a decision about how common this is yet, but it's a notion - of charlatan priests who have no qualifications, basically con men. Anyway, temples have priests, and if they're big temples, more than one. Prosperous temples no doubt have employees, as well. People to clean up, people to make repairs, people to help the priest perform rituals. Sometimes these people are volunteers from the community, sometimes they're employed through funds made available for that purpose (sometimes maybe a combination of the two, like how juries were paid wages in Athens). And that's it. So ends the temple.

Not so the Goddess. Here in the city and in her other major centers, her temples are big organizations. Essentially, these are places that move away from the classical model into a medieval model of a holy institution. They're communities, not necessarily walled like monasteries but definitely insular, of people who do nothing but work for the Goddess (or at least, for her cult). There are scribes and copyists recording lore, both of the Goddess and of other cultures. There are doctors and healers who practice their arts on the behalf of the cult for the betterment of the community, and pass on their knowledge to the next generation. There are many priests with different vocations, some who do nothing but pray and perform the rituals, some who help the community. There are even soldiers - temple guards, effectively, people who do nothing but guard the holy places of the Goddess.

As holy warriors are wont, these guardians merit further exploration. But that is for another day.

Naturally, all of this activity involves lots of money coming in and out of the temples. Some amount comes, like the Catholic church, from the broader world. This amount is a significant amount of the temple's income, and it will probably be a sore spot elsewhere in the world. The rest is local; essentially, all of the (quite significant) offerings at the little temples and shrines in the city are pooled rather than going straight to the priest running the temple.

All of this money moving from place is what necessitates the guards, as well as the bureaucrats, administrators, and a very active leadership. The cult is an active organization in the world: it reaches out and tries to do good works, tries to benefit the community. It also preserves and spreads knowledge and learning, which is, y'know, good work and all. This is the power of the cult in the broader world. It's organized in a way that other faiths just aren't, because there are these big nerve centers where people write and think and count money and train doctors and lawyers and whatever else, and these nerve centers are talking to the little shrines in Bum Fuck, Middle of Nowhere. Even if I'm the priest of the Goddess in a city where she's not a big part of civic life, I probably know all the doctors in town because they come to use my library. I' m a good source of news, I'm a good source of information of all kinds. People come to me, and once they do I know them, and I can probably learn things from them as well. And over time, knowledge turns into power.

Plus, I'm doing this full-time. Whatever else I do with my life, if I'm a merchant or a prominent politician or whatever, if I'm the priest of the goddess, unlike the other faiths, it means that I Believe and I have Faith and I have a personal relationship with Her. Her, yeah, that's right, with a capital. I care more than the other guy.

The Goddess offers a gnostic experience that's not unique, but uncommon. There are other gods and goddesses with mysteries, but She has mysteries and priests with knowledge and power and connections, and She has the lie.

The Goddess' Mysteries

The mysteries are important. Level of initiation is important. So let's think about this a little.

At the lower levels are employees of the goddess. People who are involved, committed, whose life centers around the church but aren't spiritually enlightened yet. Acolytes, minor officials, the people who light candles and greet people in the temples and assist the scribes and sweep the floors and whatever. All those little people. Then there are initiates. They've been through the first level of the mysteries, which is a crazy experience but ultimately not much different from any mundane mystery initiation. Very intense, but it doesn't necessarily reshape your whole world view. The Goddess is theoretically present, and there's a sense of ecstasy and it gives you a lot to think about - but ultimately it's a ritual, however powerful, and you got through it and you go back to your old life. You learn the secret practices of the church. You learn the secret-handshaky kinds of things, and the ideas of knowledge becoming power and power doing good, all the stuff I talk about above, is made explicit (if explained in flowery, poetic language that prevents all initiates from being completely clear on it).

This is the "normal" level of initiation. Congregants, in the sense of people like the early Christians whose faith is a huge commitment and a big part of their life, are initiated at this level. Most of the "staff" at the "nerve centers" has this level of initiation. Most "priests" in the sense of those who perform rituals and pray and are visible to the public have this level.

The higher level is very rare. Only a few individuals go through it, the leaders at the "nerve centers" and a certain number of especially holy people who go out into the world. It involves having the lie made plain to you, the truth that a group of people who were very human sat around and concocted it and decided to spread it.

The other part involves a private and intensely personal encounter with the goddess. The question is, what happens in that encounter?

One possibility is that she isn't there. The whole thing is a god(dess hahahahahhahaha)damned lie, not just "the lie."

One possibility is that she's there, and she's pissed at hell. She can't believe her name is being corrupted in this horrible, horrible way.

One possibility is that she's there, and her position is more nuanced. Maybe she doesn't have a stance on "the church" or "the lie," maybe she has a stance on the initiate. Instructions, revelations, judgments, just for you and nobody else. I think I like that best.

Truth is personal.

Implications and incomplete ideas

To do:
  • the Goddess' sect has some holy texts. Some are mysterious, some are not. A lot of them probably contradict. Let's work that out. THERE'S PROBABLY ONE ASSOCIATED WITH THE LIE.
  • Let's draw a more complete picture of sacred life in the city. Specific rituals and festivals and other deities and practices and superstitions.
  • Aspects of the goddess
  • To do with the "culture groups" project, some other ways of looking at things - especially at the goddess.

Friday, April 8, 2011

The constitution of the city

The city is in the middle of a dukedom. The duke is the highest authority; there is no king to whom he answers. The dukedom is afflicted by subinfeudation. There are any number of local nobles with power and resources to rival the duke's - or at least, there have been. We pick up our story at the long-awaited culmination of the duke's efforts to take control of his fief, dealing one at a time with nobles who were more or less in open revolt. Specifically, we pick up on the eve of a battle which, if won, will force the last intransigent nobles to submit to the duke's authority.

The city has a charter from the duke, making it an independent political entity. It's still under his authority, but enjoys certain privileges: it's governed by its own laws and its own magistrates, and the duke can't (easily, legally) interfere with internal matters. The city does have to furnish the duke with tribute and military resources, but the requirements are fixed at a relatively low rate. This arrangement has worked out very much in the duke's favor as he worked to take control of his territory. The city very much prefers a strong duke, because the duke can be expected to abide by the charter; upstart lesser nobles have sometimes influence city politics illegally or extralegally, and even raided or besieged the city to force concessions or pocket loot. In addition, the city benefits most from contact with the outside world, as its economy is based on manufacture and trade. The rural fiefdoms benefit as well, of course, but not as much, and in ways that don't always benefit the local lords directly. In short, the city has been a staunch supporter of the duke during his military adventures against his rebellious vassals, and as the conflict ends the citizens are looking forward to increased order and prosperity.

City politics are complex. In fact, outsiders used to feudal simplicity frequently use the word "insane" or "unworkable." The government is composed of a web of magistracies and assemblies, each with extensive power within a specific portfolio, and relatively little oversight from other branches.

Firstly, there are three types of citizens: after the Roman model, let's think of them for the moment as Patricians (city fathers), Equestrians (knights), and Plebs (commons). They're all citizens, but they have very different rights, privileges and responsibilities. Patricians are extremely privileged in city law. All the most powerful magistracies are open to them. They enjoy all sorts of rights - by custom - regarding their persons and property. For instance, they may only ever be placed under house arrest, regardless of circumstances. They're likely to be granted trial very quickly, and their trial is very likely to be fair (since it's being arranged and observed by other patricians who would want their trial to be fair). They're traditionally addressed as "your honor." Patrician status is almost entirely hereditary; you have to be born or married into a Patrician family.

Patricians don't technically have a lot of formal obligations to the city. However, there is a strong tradition of service, and while a Patrician who doesn't live up to it won't face legal consequences, the other Patricians will do everything in their power to give that individual their comeuppance socially.

Probably the greatest power of the Patricians is automatic membership in the Patrician Assembly, which can veto any action of any other part of the city government by simple majority vote.

Equestrians are the "upper middle" class. The name may or may not be misleading; I'll need to make a decision about the relative scarcity of heavy cavalry in this setting. It may not make sense for their to be an entire class of city dweller below the Patricians who have the resources to outfit a horse. In any event, the idea is that Equestrians are people who have the resources necessary to personally contribute substantially towards the military defense of the city. They can outfit themselves as horsemen, or afford money for arms and armor and time for training to become elite infantry. As such, it's theoretically a property class, but not always. First, you have to apply to become Equestrian, which means that you can have wealthy Plebs who never bother; this is looked down upon, since it means that you refuse to take responsibility for defending the city. Second, you can be refused Equestrian status if you're a criminal or aren't deemed "honorable," which in some instances means that it boils down to politics. Third, Equestrians tend to look out for other Equestrians, so if your family is respectable enough, the authorities will tend to look the other way if you no longer meet the property qualifications, as long as you can keep appearances up. This can get very awkward all around when the Equestrians are actually called upon to take the field, and a lot of "fake Equestrians" invariably get exposed and ousted at those times. There is a committee in charge of overseeing Equestrian membership, and they're both a very powerful and very corrupt branch of the city government, very prone to playing favorites.

Equestrians aren't as privileged or deferred to as Patricians, but they're entitled to justice in courts administered by other Equestrians, and they can hold many of the magistracies, though none of the most powerful. They also, fittingly, have a great deal of influence over military matters. If the assembly of the Equestrians votes to with an overwhelming majority, they can veto an action of any magistrate - pending a vote by the Patrician Assembly to upheld the Equestrian veto.

Equestrians are usually addressed as "Sir" (for men) or Madam (for women).

Last are the plebs. The plebs are everybody else. There are prosperous plebs, there are accomplished plebs, there are honored plebs, but they're still plebs. A prominent pleb may socialize with an Equestrian or even, occasionally, a Patrician, but there will always be a feeling of condescension, however subtle. Plebs can hold only the most junior magistracies, usually in roles reporting directly to another magistrate. They enjoy certain legal protections as citizens: their property can't be seized without due process, for instance, and they can't be prevented from speaking or taking part in the Pleb's Assembly. The only justice they have access to is the justice of the magistrates, however, administered by Patricians. Any able-bodied individual is subject to conscription in the event of war.

The only political power of the plebeian class is the Pleb's Assembly. The Assembly can render judgment on certain types of legal cases involving only plebs, and it can issue a formal statement or appeal to any magistrate or to the other Assemblies. It also administers plebeian conscripts, though it has to take direction from the Equestrian Assembly and certain magistrates in that regard.

Plebs are usually addressed as "Mister" or "Ma'am." Not sure about that "Ma'am" since it's just a shortened form of "Madam," but it has the right feel.

Some magistracy ideas:

Consuls - had veto power, conducted policy under direction of Senate.
Praetor - conducted minor matters of state under direction of Senate. Power of judgment.
Quaestor - treasurer, effectively. Disbursed and oversaw use of public funds.
Aedile - infrastructure. Oversaw buildings and festivals.
Censor - public morality, finances, census.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

You are here

Something I keep running into in my thinking is the idea that they story necessarily takes place somewhere. Rather an important point, no? As discussed, it takes place at least in large part in "the City." Where is the city? What's it like outside the city? What's it like halfway across the world? Most importantly, what do they think about the catastrophe there? Do they believe in the lie? Do they have another version? Did the catastrophe even occur there?

I think I'm inclined to pull a Dragon Age here. In Dragon Age, the furthest places seems to be roughly as far away as Rome is from London, or perhaps as Istanbul is from London. Roughly Antiva to Tevinter, or Antiva to Par Vollen. It's a ways, but not so far as to make trade impossible. Fenris is not especially old and he made his way from Seheron in the far north to Kirkwall, which is a few weeks by foot from the southernmost point to which anybody cares to travel, in not more than a few years (judging by his apparent age), stopping frequently for short periods and wandering without a set destination in mind. There may be other parts of the world, but they're so far away that they aren't really part of the discussion. Maybe there are a few colorful travelogues, the equivalents of Marco Polo and Xanthippus and Herodotus, that tell fabulous stories of distant countries that nobody takes particularly seriously.

What that tends to suggest is something the equivalent of, you guessed it, medieval Europe. Everybody shares a common religion, and though there are vast cultural differences there are certain underlying similarities, which would be, in this case, the lie, and presumably the religion to which it's attached.

I'm not sure I like that. There should definitely be something out there, somebody with different views of the catastrophe, places where forces are at work that aren't entirely understood by characters invested in the city's culture. The problem is that when you have too many of those you wind up playing this weird game of cultural counterpart. For instance, the city is clearly a cultural counterpart of Italy. It's a Renaissance city-state in a Renaissance/High Medieval country. I did that intentionally because a) it's familiar to me historically which makes it easy to crib ideas, and b) it allows me to play with elements that I personally enjoy, such as office-holding and factional politics. I don't want to have to come up with the counterpart of the French and Germans during the Renaissance, and then have "the Mongols" and "the ancient Chinese" and "fantasy Japan." That's dumb.

On the other hand, one of the things I don't like about the Mercedes Lackey novel I've been reading, Lark & Wren, is how woefully vague everything is in terms of geography, ethnography and sociology. They're in a kingdom called Rayden. There are other kingdoms, close enough that they're all actually united in one super-kingdom (ruled by a high king, so maybe it's a high kingdom? Who knows). The residents of Rayden know next to nothing about the neighboring kingdom, Birnam. None of the characters have heard any news from Birnam for the last five or so years, even though they are wandering minstrels who consider it a part of their job to spread news around the country. The last news anyone remembers they only heard because it personally impacted them in the job they held at the time. Most of the characters aren't aware that there was a bloody coup in Birnam five years ago, and none of the characters know anything - even rumor - about the old king or the new king. The characters are the leaders of a trade association of traveling minstrels, but they have no idea what life is like for minstrels on the other side. Even the Gypsies, notable in this setting for having a gossip-powered information network second to none, have no clue what to expect in Birnam. I mean, that's crazy! Birnam is a black hole, apparently! Going to Birnam should be like a someone from Soviet Russia coming to the United States - complete culture shock. In practice, it seems like crossing the border from New York to Pennsylvania. The characters speak the language, they seem to look live everyone else, their money is good, officials wave them through checkpoints, they know from past experience exactly what conditions will be like for servants at the royal palace - I mean, come on! When I go to a new deli, I'm never sure how to bus my food. It should be at least that different. There's no sense of nationality, of local custom, in Lark & Wren at all.

So I guess that's a dichotomy to not fall into. On the one hand, the fantasy counterpart culture. The reader goes, "Oh, this is Byzantium with magic, I see." Then they read 20 pages and decide, "Probably around 1400, too." On the other hand, Fantasy Country, which has no attributes except those incidental to the plot, and no regional variation (except those incidental to the plot).

Dragon Age has a case of a third option in the form of an alien society, which is neither an historical counterpart nor bland, the Qunari. The Book of the New Sun likewise - every culture in New Sun is pretty vastly alien, and doesn't always make a lot of sense to the reader. Gene Wolfe's accomplishment there is to keep you interested with faux-medieval tropes that you think you recognize, while actually representing something much stranger.

Which brings me all the way back to my opening questions. What's this world like?

Well. The area around the city is politically fractious. Travel is difficult, outsiders stand out. Everyone speaks the same language, but there are strong local accents, even if you live in a village a few miles a way. Further than that, you have a "culture group" of people with similar customs, the same language with a great deal of regional distinction, similar (though distinct) local politics, etc. At some point, there's a natural barrier - a mountain range, an ocean, a desert, a jungle, a hostile and xenophobic kingdom, a thick forest - and past that, nobody speak the same language and the customs are utterly different. Politics, too, may take a vastly different shape. The people look different; their skin is lighter or darker, everyone seems tall or short, their clothes are different, their swords are no good but the horses are the best you've ever seen - or something. But there are still things you can agree about. You have a trade language in common, if you're educated. The religion is still there, and the lie. Then you have thousands of miles of that, all honey-combed by mountain ranges, wide rivers, seas and oceans, etc. Then, eventually, you start to people like that living alongside stranger people - people with completely different skin, language that sounds utterly strange, writing you can't make out. And they don't believe in the religion, and they don't have the lie.

Going to need to flesh out some specifics, here, clearly. Let's set a goal of pinning down some things about:
  • The city's "culture group."
  • A nearby "culture group."
  • A distant "culture group" that accepts the lie.
  • A distant "culture group" that doesn't accept the lie.
  • An alien "culture group" that inhabits the city - where is the city's Chinatown, and how have its residents preserved their culture? How have they lost it?