Guest Post: Betsy Dornbusch

Authors talk about worldbuilding, but have you stopped to think about the why of it? SF&F author Betsy Dornbusch tackles that question.

Writing in Secondary Worlds

Betsy Dornbusch

 I write all my current work in secondary worlds, short fiction and novel length. My current trilogy, Books of the Seven Eyes, is written in an entirely made up secondary world with seven moons and little direct relationship to our world at all. I did pick and choose my elements from our world (I like horses so there are horses. I like sailing, so there are ships.) But the races aren’t human, despite their humanlike tendencies toward prejudice and war and necromancy.

Ha. Thought I’d slip that in.

But I never really examined why I write in secondary worlds until I was asked the question for this blog post. As with most things worth examining, the answer is complicated.

We’ll just get my totally la-la romantic view of European Middle Ages out of the way, though I doubt my reasons are all the same to why others romanticize it.

Here I’ll toss out a disclaimer that I’m aware all the reasons I like it are myth, grounded in story. I also know I’m no historian and my memory for dates and names sucks, so my knowledge of the era is middling at best. But I’m a story teller. It’s my religion. So I give stories and myths a lot of credence, not only from a cultural aspect, but a spiritual one. Stories feed the soul, especially secondary world stories. They have done practically since people told stories.

I do like gallantry and knights and gowns and swords. And cloaks. I have a thing for cloaks. (Yes, I’ve worn one. Yes, I know they’re as unhandy for doing anything besides wearing one as they look.) Really, though, I like the simplicity of an honor code (yes, yes, still with the myth, I know) and the notion of knowing one’s role in the world from birth (much less myth).

As annoying as a caste/class system is to almost any current thinking person, as a middle-aged, Western woman I often find myself floundering for my One True Role in Life. Wife, as much as I can. Mother, all the time. Housemaid of a messy house. Cook of adequate meals. Feminist…but how much of one? Writer, when I am able. Editor, always behind. Christian, untainted by too much church-going. Privileged in birth, family, health, money, home. How spoiled am I? How spoiled should I expect to be? How much guilt should I suffer for it? Should I give more? (I should give more.) (But when?) And those are just the preliminary questions today’s life asks; I didn’t even touch the Internet.

Fear not, we will.

In light of all these typical, problems-of-privilege dilemmas from living a modern Western life, it’s easy to romanticize the idea of Knowing One’s Place.

But there is one other inviting aspect of writing in secondary worlds: It limits the ability for others to judge. It mires issues and themes in purely made up (or sometimes imitation) cultures that builds a sort of safety fence around my thoughts. It’s not a solid or really high fence, but it’s enough of a barrier that real criticism of what I’ve done with it takes some thought.

Two reasons for this protective instinct:

One, I’m a writer with a tender ego. The only writers without tender egos deep down are the ones who aren’t any good. Ha. That’s mostly a lie. We all have tender egos. Some of us fake toughness better than others. Sometimes it’s an overinflated sense of self-worth. Sometimes it’s a lack of empathy. Sometimes it’s pure smoke and mirrors.

Two, the Western, particularly American, predilection to judgement. People like to accuse the Internet of starting it, but it’s been going on for a long time. Because of who our White forbears were, judgement was dragged across the ocean and held up like a shield like an accredited geek at a comic con full of muggles. Judgement, she be a fickle beast. On the one hand it can help people examine things. On the other, it can keep people from really seeing. Creating a veil through which my statements on the human condition must be scrutinized cuts the nescient from the thinkers. Because even as hard as it is to bear sometimes, I do want to see thoughtful criticism and discussion of my work. I want to improve as a writer and as a person.

And then there’s just this whole other simple reason for writing in secondary worlds: It’s really freaking fun.

Betsy Dornbusch is the author of a dozen short stories, three novellas, and three novels. She is an editor with the speculative fiction magazine Electric Spec and the longtime proprietress of Sex Scenes at Starbucks. She can be found at and all the usual haunts online.

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