Tuesday, July 30, 2019

What living abroad taught me about writing fantasy

For the past year, I’ve been living in the city of Mechelen in Belgium. It’s this gorgeous historical town halfway between Brussels and Antwerp, and I highly recommend visiting it if you’re planning a trip to Europe. It’s big enough that most people speak English, but small enough that it’s not “modernized” like a lot of major European cities I’ve visited. While the actual experience of living abroad wasn’t always amazing, my writer-brain was constantly active, soaking up the local culture and trying to relate it to writing fantasy. I mean, it was hard not to think about how much I love world-building while standing on the Grote Markt and staring up at a 700-year-old cathedral, listening to the carillonist playing songs so old nobody knows the lyrics anymore. I did find some things that I thought were relevant and helpful, so I hope y’all can learn a little something from what I figured out while I was there.


I know, I know, I’m constantly writing about languages and dialects, but they’re SO COOL. In Belgium, there are three main languages spoken – French, Flemish, and German – and a lot of people speak English as well, although it’s not an official language. That’s a lot of languages for a country that’s barely bigger than Maryland! Not to mention the fact that every city has its own dialect, and dialects are sometimes so different from “standard” Flemish that they’re completely unintelligible.

What this showed me is that, if I’m going to be writing a fantasy world that is Belgium-sized or bigger, there would probably be more than one language spoken. A lot of fantasy books I’ve read feature a variety of languages, often based on race (like Entish and Sindarin in Tolkien’s universe), and I do sometimes see languages based on geographical region. In these books, there’s usually a standardized language – I seem to remember several series calling it Common – and I always thought that was weird, but I now know that this makes sense. So I’d recommend taking that into consideration, especially if a character is a trader, nobleperson, or artisan.

Market Days

Market day was my favorite day of the week. Every Satuday – not just in Mechelen, I’ve also been to markets in Gouda, Dordrecht, Lier, and Haarlem – the entire city turns out to visit the market. The variety of vendors is incredible. Pretty much everyone turns out to go to the market. It’s not just for shopping, but also socializing. In Mechelen, there are stalls that sell mussels, with tall tables where people can stand around and drink and socialize. There are snack stands – things like pancakes and waffles – and vendors selling everything from raw meat and fish to live pet birds. People sell clothes, cheese, bread, vegetables, flowers, and plenty of other items. The city carillonneur (I’d explain but that would take way too long) plays the cathedral bells during market day as well, playing everything from pop music to songs from 500 years ago.

What I took away from this is that the market day is the central day of the week. People go to socialize, shop, observe other people, and get news. And speaking of which…


There’s this story about Mechelen where in the late 1600s, a drunk stumbled out of a bar in the wee hours and thought the cathedral was on fire. He roused the entire city, a bucket brigade was formed, and when they got to the top of the tower, they realized that the “fire” was just a red moon shining through a cloud, illuminating the cathedral tower from behind. This story spread across Flanders like actual fire, and before long, Mechelinians were being called “maneblussers,” or “moon extinguishers.” Most cities in Flanders have similar, slightly mocking names for the inhabitants of particular cities.

Anyway. My point is that news travelled fast, and led to some pretty funny nicknames. When writing fantasy, consider the spread of news and information. It might be faster than you think!

I hope you've learned something from all this. I mean, I moved across the ocean just to find this stuff out for you, so...ya know, I hope it was worth it!

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