I have heard a truly ridiculous amount of writing advice. I’ve read books, listened to podcasts, followed YouTube channels, and scoured the internet for helpful tips. Most places reiterated the same three or four suggestions, though I occasionally found a nugget of wisdom buried in the repetition. Of everything I’ve heard, there is one piece of advice that has stuck with me.

Don’t focus on the small details. Detail bores the reader and leaves the writer bogged down in minutiae.

It sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? The podcaster went on to illustrate their point. Everyone knows the castle/village/unicorn city has a plumbing system. No one needs to know how it works. There are dragons/sorcerers/unicorn-eating monsters to worry about.

I’m paraphrasing, of course. It’s been years since I first stumbled across this advice, and I’ve heard it repeated several times. No one cares about the plumbing system.

I have a terrible confession to make. I’m a bit of a nerd. Shocker, right? As a nerdy writer, I’ve spent a lot of time world-building. Part of that preparation included a lot of historical research. No matter the geography, time period, or level of technology, a city must possess a method of keeping citizens hydrated and a way to dispose of waste.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of waste disposal and safe drinking fluids. Even now, we can see how the location of many major cities was decided on these factors. Trade and farmland were important, sure, but farmland required water and craftsman can’t sell to dead people.

Oftentimes, cities like London were built in ideal locations for these concerns. Unfortunately, the population eventually exceeded the river they depended on. This becomes obvious as disease rose and people began to accept horrible smells as the cost of city living. As in many cities, the Londoners eventually realized the water was undrinkable and turned to watered-down alcohol.

London is not a one-off. There are many, many examples of settlements outgrowing their sewers, communal toilets, cesspits and other vital waste-related infrastructure. The consequences affected every occupation, class, and age group.

The importance of plumbing cannot be overestimated.

When I’m writing about a cohesive world, I like a degree of realism. I love adding monsters, magic, and mayhem, but I want the world to feel lived in. I heard this advice about plumbing and decided I had to ignore it. Like a lot of novice writers, I worried I was making a huge mistake by ignoring the wisdom of those more successful. I quickly learned to trust my instincts.

Many authors talk about their world’s plumbing system. Characters use it as an escape route or as rendezvous points for buying illicit material. Bathrooms are hiding places, fight clubs, and places to overhear gossip. Futuristic, starship restrooms house dangerous aliens waiting to ambush the next man with a full bladder. Communal toilets are a way to ground the reader in the historical period the fictional character lives in. We don’t like to think about what goes on inside bathrooms, but they are very much a part of life.

In George R.R. Martin’s epic series, A Song of Ice and Fire, the capitol city, King’s Landing, struggles to maintain their sewer system. It’s too small and badly managed. The smell of the city is repeatedly mentioned. We could even consider it a metaphor. King’s Landing is full of shit underneath it’s pretty castle. The city’s sewers are so important, they impact the plot.

In my debut novel, Benevolent Keepers, I knew I couldn’t ignore the problem of plumbing. Large portions of the population collect drinking water from the small river, and wouldn’t be able to do this if it were polluted with waste products. To make matters worse, resources are scarce. There’s no infrastructure for citywide plumbing, and there isn’t enough space to keep burying it. The solution?

Flaming chamberpots.

I was fairly pleased when the concept came to me. It gave me a reasonable way to incinerate waste and shows the reader how magic has infiltrated the lives of everyone in the valley. Charmed chamberpots continue to be an important detail in the world I’ve built.

When worldbuilding, it’s up to the creator to ground the reader. Fantastical elements make the world unique and fascinating. Small, humble details give the reader a chance to get their bearings. Plumbing is seen as a tiny, unimportant detail, but I believe it can be vital to a good story.

Author: Louise Rainey

Louise Rainey is an author and apocalypse enthusiast. Although she primarily writes in the fantasy and science fiction genres, she’s been preparing for a myriad of untimely disasters since childhood. It’s possible she might’ve read a few too many survivalist books at an impressionable age. Regardless, she’s ready to rock n’ roll at the first sign of zombies, and a Yellowstone eruption will never take her by surprise. When she’s not preparing for the demise of her Texas home, she’s baking, listening to the same song on repeat, or playing with her gorgeous cat, Robin and her monster-dog Percy.

Louise has a degree in psychology and neuroscience and an unofficial doctorate in Random Ridiculous Knowledge. As a child, she won several writing contests, and she’s been trying to top her blue ribbon at the state fair ever since. Her latest published books include Benevolent Keepers and The Frog Eater.


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