East and west – the people of Crosswater

Now, where was I before I went off on a tangent about my hot new collection of flash fiction (oh go on buy one it’s really cheap papa needs a new pair of shoes)?

That’s right, worldbuilding. (Still.)

Two weeks ago I talked about how people are the most important part of worldbuilding, the thing that connects most strongly with readers, and gave a few rough tips on developing cultural elements and ideas. So here’s a post to sketch out the two main cultural groups in Crosswater, the town that is the setting of Raven’s Blood, and how I’ve applied those ideas in this case.

(Wow. I wrote that like I was some kind of expert, rather than someone half-arsedly fumbling through ideas he’s only just had and still can’t fully articulate. Go me.)

The Westrons

The Westrons are native to Crosswater and the lands to the west. They tend to have dark skin (ranging from olive to almond in complexion) and straight hair. Originally a loose collection of towns and city-states, Westron society gathered together over the last few centuries into a cohesive kingdom. Originally Crosswater was the seat of the kingdom, but after the War Against the Host the royal family relocated to another city further inland. Still, Crosswater remains the mercantile hub of the kingdom and a centre of trade, travel and intrigue.

I based Westron society on Elizabethan England – originally just because I loved the image of masked heroes in ruffs and surcoats, but I soon realised that that this also gave me a lot of other story options. Technologically, it let me include cannons, pistols, the printing press and other such devices without needing to justify their presence too much, letting me focus on magical anachronisms like golem-armour and grappling-hook guns. Patterning Crosswater after London gave me plays and culture, but also narrow alleys and bunched-together houses perfect for parkour scenes. And it gave me a society founded on business and trade but also with a strong military bent. I could have made all of things up whole cloth, but the shorthand of ‘it’s like Elizabethan England’ lets me get it across quickly so I can spend more words on action and explosions.

The stereotypes of Westrons align with their mercantile society – they care about money and business more than family, they see outsiders as opportunities (or threats) rather than as people, they always look for the profit or power in an interaction and they’re very concerned about status and wealth. Those stereotypes also tie back to the theme of Westron magic, that everything has a price. They’re a people who expect to pay for everything they get, and look at gifts with suspicion. The flip side is also a willingness to suffer losses to get ahead – most of the victories in the War Against the Host came from soldiers sacrificing themselves (or their subordinates) in order to make gains. That readiness to sacrifice can be a nobility in some Westrons and a callous ruthlessness in others.

The Easterlings

Easterlings tend to have pale skin (ranging from light pink to almost white in complexion) and curly hair. Hailing from far-off lands, their society has suffered radical changes in a short time. Like the Westrons, they were originally a collection of independent states, ones more inclined towards sorcerous war than trade. But sorcery proved their undoing, as it brought the Host to the mortal plane, and those 27 evil angels conquered the Eastern states and made them into an empire, corrupting the lands in the process. The Easterlings lived as slaves to their blazing gods for three hundred years, until the Host were cast down in the war against the Westron armies. Twenty years later, the Easterlings in Crosswater (and other Western lands) bereft of roots and separated from the blighted lands their fathers called home.

Easterling society is a shaky mash-up of ancient Greece and ancient Egypt – almost as if the first abruptly morphed into the second, Zeus and the gods becoming manifest and demanding not just worship but utter servitude. It’s not a stable kind of change, but it’s not meant to be; it’s a reflection of the theme of Easterling magic, that change begets change. Pushed through worship into slavery and then out into an uncertain, penniless freedom in a land that doesn’t want them, Easterling society is shell-shocked and on the defensive, ready to change again if the situation allows it. (Greece and Egypt also inform Easterling aesthetics and technology, but not so much as with the Elizabethans/Westrons.)

The stereotypes of Easterlings in Crosswater are generally not pleasant – they’re a poor, untrusted underclass for the most part, sometimes derided as ‘worms’ due to their pale skin. Many Westrons assume that Easterlings still worship the Host and would continue their holy war against the West if given the opportunity. The truth is more complex. Some older Easterlings do venerate the memory of the Host on some level, but it’s a reverence born of fear (and a little Stockholm syndrome) rather than love. Younger Easterlings are generally glad to be free, but chafe against the social and political restrictions the Westrons impose on them. But where can they go? Their lands are gone, so they have to leave in the hot, hostile West – and more and more of them are ready to fight for what they need.

As you can see, the stereotypes are stronger on the Westron side, mostly because they’re more solidly anchored in real-world history and the context it brings with it. I have to do more work to make the Easterlings real, but at the same time they’re so strongly defined by recent events that I don’t have to look back too far to find (i.e. make up) inspiration and context for how characters act.

And when you get these two groups together  – say in a city where Easterling resentment is rising and where there are rumours that the Host have returned – then conflict is inevitable. And conflict is where the story happens.

That’s probably enough about worldbuilding for a while, and indeed Raven’s Blood. Time to focus on writing the book, rather than about the book.

Come back next week! No idea what I’ll be discussing then!

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