All right folks, here’s where I lift up the hood and show you the cheat codes…
Er, that metaphor is rather mangled.
The point is, I’m going to show you some inner-workings of worldbuilding, based on my research, to give you the simplest tools to set the technology level of your fantasy world. With those building blocks, you can focus on more interesting elements. That, in turn, should help you avoid “generic medieval” or “generic steampunk”.
So, the course of civilizations has many, many benchmarks that you can use, but on some level, the easiest are what people drink and what they fight with. With that, you can break down the pre-industrial era into six basic phases.
Phase One: Beer and Bronze. Beer, of course, pre-dates bronze. Beer is one of our oldest inventions. The origins of beer and bread are intertwined; historians aren’t even sure which came first, but both involve grains, yeast and fermentation. But it does go hand in hand with bronze age, dawn of civilization stuff.
Phase Two: Wine and Iron. Wine comes about with the classical age, the drink of choice for thinkers of distinction. But it also represents the point where civilization strives to be a bit more than just collective survival. And it’s good for a setting of “civilized” people who think they’re above the “barbarians” around them.
Phase Three: Spirits and Steel. Transition from dark ages to Renaissance, this is what you have. Probably the most traditional thing to use for a “fantasy” novel.
Phase Four: Tea and Canons. This is where you might transition to a “wider world” level of fantasy– sea trade and expansion of thought.
Phase Five: Coffee and Muskets. A more civilized, controlled version of the previous version, but also more revolutionary. Coffee was often connected with subversive thought, the drink of choice for folks who would stay up late discussing ideas away from the mainstream. Well, that still hasn’t changed.
Phase Six: Soda and Pistols. This is simplifying things, but if you’re going steampunk, don’t forget that carbonated beverages were drank as early as the late 1700s.
Now, of course, that doesn’t mean that you can’t cheat, cheat like CRAZY on this stuff. Because that’s how good worldbuilding surprises us: taking what we expect and subverting the hell out of it. Don’t just wedge your story somewhere between Phases Three and Four because that’s what “fantasy” is supposed to be.
Further reading, for the drinks side of things here: A History of the World in Six Glasses by Tom Standage. Good worldbuilding research book. Check it out.