#WBW – Marvelous and Mundane Artefacts

Welcome back world builders!

I’ve been looking closely at artefacts over the past week or so because I’m editing an old short story of mine which features an ancient artefact as an important plot point.

(For all my US English speaking friends reading this who might be wondering about now why does she keep writing artefact? It’s just the British English spelling of artifact. Feel free to replace all the e’s with i’s in your brain as you read!)

What do we mean when we’re talking about an artefact? To keep it plain and simple, we’re talking about an object which has some cultural or historical significance, and was created by humans. (Or humanoids, for all my fantasy and sci-fi writing buddies out there.)

From the sarcophagus in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lot No. 249, to Marvel’s infinity stones, artefacts are often used in fiction to add conflict and mystery to a plot.

I think it’s pretty common to think of artefacts as devastatingly powerful objects that can change the fate of your world. After all, fiction and gaming is littered with these kind of treasures. Tolkien and the One Ring, Pullman and the Subtle Knife. The Master Sword in Zelda. The Hand and Eye of Vecna in the D&D universe.

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Vecna Lives. Original cover art by Jeff Easley – Fair Use

Powerful artifacts are often just part and parcel of the stories we consume.

But, not all artefacts have to be cursed Egyptian amulets or chaos gems. if artefacts are simply things created by humans which hold some sort of cultural significance, then they can be used in much more subtle ways to help characterize both person and place within a narrative.

Every day artefacts

While the editing I am doing now is certainly surrounding an all powerful artefact in my short story. It kind of got me thinking about the artefacts we use every day.

And the first thing I thought of was my Mum’s quilts.

My Mum has been diligently crafting quilts for all the family since she retired. They’re beautiful works of art, but they’re also practical. Quilting is a huge part of American folk tradition, and as a lover of folk art, my Mum was drawn to learning the skill. (She’s doing a pretty mean job of making them too!)

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Enjoy this picture of my quilt, taken by my Mother as she was making it. She made mine by up-cycling the fabric from old kimonos! (because I’m such weeaboo trash c:)

The everyday artefacts my Mum is making as gifts for the family got me thinking about Whitney Otto’s novel, How to Make an American Quilt. Otto uses the quilt as a brilliant plot device and metaphor for love and relationships, but it also helps the reader to paint a vivid picture of that small town American setting.

Quilts weren’t the only everyday artefacts I got thinking about though. Another object that piqued my interest in this regard was the Tarot.

I’ve always loved tarot cards. They’re beautiful to look at, and there is so much interesting history surrounding their uses. In fiction, the tarot has been used to signify the character in the role of the fortune teller or wise crone plenty of times. But if you follow the history of the tarot back to its origins, they were not mystic artefacts so much as symbols of status. The divinatory aspect of the tarot didn’t spring up until around 300 years after their introduction as a card game.

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Mamluk playing cards from Turkey circa 16 C

The cards became so widespread across Europe after their introduction in the 14th Century, that now they’re more widely associated with the countries of Western Europe than they are their original Middle Eastern origins.

Recipe books were another object that I feel could be used brilliantly as an every day artefact to help give more depth or colour to a character or place. Filled with instructions and ingredients, recipe books could provide all sorts of glimpses into the cultural and environmental elements of a particular region or person within a narrative. We’ve already talked about how useful food is as a tool for developing rich and varied worlds. Why not cook books too?

There are plenty of other every day artefacts too. Jewelry, coffee mugs, kids toys… all of these every day items hold cultural and sentimental significance to people all over the world.

I’m not so certain I’ve been paying enough attention to how I use every day artefacts in my world building and narratives. But it’s an area that I’m going to pay special attention to from now on.

I encourage you to find those every day artefacts your world has been missing, flesh them out fully. They might be the missing element you’ve been looking for to perfect the atmosphere of a city, or the personality of a character!

That’s all for this Wednesday folks! Until next time, happy world building!