Writers have to provide a certain amount of solid grounding in their world, whether it be realism in an “ordinary world” or explaining the rules in a world of magic. But they have to do it carefully — not enough grounding and readers shake their heads at fancy words with no meaning; too much explanation and it comes off like sitting in a lecture in a stuffy classroom.
I wrote that “sitting in a lecture in a stuffy classroom” metaphor very deliberately, because grounding a reader in the rules of the world is, in effect, teaching. Doing this grounding not only helps the reader understand the world, but teaches them something new.
I remember a Jayne Ann Krentz book I once read (yes, I have read fantasy, and some of it is quite good) where the lead male owned a winery. At one point, he strides through the winery checking up on things. That’s about the only detail Krentz provided about the winery — he could have been touring an aircraft carrier for all we knew. This really stood out to me because I used to make wine at home and had considered starting a commercial winery at one point. My character would have stopped by the lab to discuss pH levels and brix — sugar levels — of grape must going into the process and the percentage alcohol and residual sugar of a batch waiting to go into oak barrels if it was red wine or bottling if it was white. He would tour the barrel stock and take a sample from a 55-gallon barrel with a wine thief and taste how it began to mellow under the influence of the oak. With these details, the reader understands more about wine — and the male protagonist is portrayed as having a keen eye on details, an understanding that winemaking is as much a craft as a business, and a rapport with his workers. That’s the beauty of teaching — done right, it develops the rest of the story — character, plot, theme, or all three — as well as teaching the reader about something new.
I do a certain amount of teaching in my own writings — I am, after all, a professor. I write what would be called magical realism if I wrote literary fiction instead of genre fiction (e.g. romance, science fiction, fantasy, Westerns, erotica). Sometimes what I write just has to be revealed rather than explained because there is no logical explanation — for example, the mystical aspects of my writing such as seeing visions and hearing the voices of the Gods (sounds epic, but the recipients of these preternatural events are a twenty-year-old college student and a fifty-year-old architect.)
Some extraordinary things need to be explained — such as the rules around time travel:
“Ahh, the rock principle.” Ian referred to the fact that when Travellers exacted non-significant changes in a time period — not interactions with major players or major objects — an innocuous change would be made in terms of those non-essential players and objects. For example, if a Traveller picked up a rock in 1620 that an ordinary human of the time would trip over, the timeline would substitute another rock to compensate. In my case, I supplanted the red and white airplane. Significant changes would not be allowed according to the rock principle.
And sometimes I teach the most prosaic things:
Her permaculture guilds for Barn Swallows’ Dance would be bigger, more complex. Daunting, even. Two acres of six-layer guilds centered on apple trees, surrounded with hazelnut and sea holly and various cane berries, where the tree’s dappled shade would benefit them. Perennial herbs and greens such as scorzonera and chicory would be planted toward the tree’s drip line where they would get enough water.
Groundcovers like bunchberry and violets, which would block weeds, and edible vines that grew up the trees, would complete the scene.
When I pick up a book, sometimes I want it to broaden my world. Maybe it’s just me, because I teach college for a living. But if the book can explain something in a non-didactic (non-lecture-y) way, I’m all for it. I hope I’m doing a good job of it.