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World Building - Intro & Pirates

Updated on August 31, 2017

Imaginative and Alternate Worlds

Much of my favorite reading and art involves made-up worlds -


Middle Earth

Alice's Wonderland



There is a glorious history of alternate worlds. As a Reader I enjoy visiting them, but as a Designer I can only guess at how much fun it must have been to create them! How exciting, how fascinating, how - sometimes - obsessively engrossing.

Let's travel together through a few of these worlds in literature, art, even architecture, skipping lightly over politics and religion (though Utopia is a must-see and so is Hell) and visiting mostly the friendlier worlds. But we'll travel not just as impressed tourists, but as fellow designers, as folks looking where to build a house, as rival developers and apprentice world-builders. And see what we can learn.

Obviously, this is a HUGE topic! We can't cover everything here.

So we'll start easy, just dip our toes into the shallow waters just off-shore from the reality we know.

(Love this public domain 1955 photo of "Baby Buchanan" in Victoria - That's the pirate spirit!)

Our World - But More Exciting

Let's start just off the edges of the map.

Sea serpents! Monsters! Mermaids!

Pirates! (Literary ones, not those unpleasant real people off the coast of Somalia). Literary pirates were almost invented by one book, "Treasure Island," by Robert Louis Stevenson. (Just as the vampire genre started with "Dracula," by Bram Stoker.) Other notable book and film pirates include "Captain Blood" and "The Crimson Pirate" (with some of the funniest 1950's striped pirate outfits ever) and our generation's Captain Jack Sparrow.

A closely allied genre would be ship-wrecked tales like "Robinson Crusoe" or "The Swiss Family Robinson" or the Tom Hanks film, "Castaway."

Treasure Island - Casa Manana theater - Clare Floyd DeVries set designer
Treasure Island - Casa Manana theater - Clare Floyd DeVries set designer

Treasure Island

As a theater set designer I was thrilled to get to design for Robert Louis Stevenson's imaginative world. In my version, the stage became a giant pirate's treasure map with the ship Hispaniola built in 3D. (Though not too watertight --- since eight dancing pirates had to get out through the hull somehow!)

Robert Louis Stevenson
Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island"

This is one of the great classics and a childhood staple that's been made into films and plays and comic books. Long John Silver - with his wooden leg and parrot - shaped all following literary pirates.

The whole story started with the drawing of a map -

- and the tale grew from the map. Eventually that sketch was lost and had to be recreated, but Stevenson thought it was never quite the same.

The Book Itself

Treasure Island in a nice edition. An absolute classic. (My own copy is three generations old, yellowed and cracked as an old treasure map.)

Read the original, eh matie?

Old Editions on eBay

One of the treasures of my childhood was an old, ragged, foxed-brown, and crumbly copy of Treasure Island that had belonged to my father and uncle. A copy that looked as if it had been buried with a pirate hoard, clutched in the bony hand of a pirate's skeleton.

(A pirate wants to pass the time pleasantly till rediscovered, right?)

That book was atmospheric to the max! I felt like I was reading a real, antique, true pirate chronicle.

Treasure Island Map - The re-created version

Treasure Island map
Treasure Island map

Another Distant Island - though a little less, um, tropical


Exotic Cartography

Cartography - the science and art of drawing maps.

We find old maps quaint nowadays partly because the geography looks strange ("THAT's Florida? No way!").

The earliest map makers didn't have handy GPS to tell them where they were. Christopher Columbus thought he'd found the Indies - thinking INDIA - when, in fact there was a whole new (rather large) continent and another ocean in his way. Early mapmakers didn't have satellite photos to compare their hand-drawn maps to either. These maps were made by measuring on the ground or along the shore by ship. Just imagine that job! George Washington - like other early surveyors - actually dragged a chain behind him through the woods and swamps to map out a piece of property. Mud, thorns, mosquitoes...

compass rose
compass rose

TRY IT YOURSELF (great projects for kids!)

---- Draw a map of your neighborhood just from pacing it off. Measure your usual footstep distance, then count steps and multiply. How accurate is your map?

The other reason old maps can look exotic today is because the map makers decorated them. I'm not sure these artists actually believed in all the sea-monsters they drew ( you notice as times became more scientific the monsters tended to be replaced by natives or ships), but the map makers certainly liked the idea of decorating the plain science and geometry of their work. Of course, age has weathered the maps and that makes them even more interesting.


---- Draw a pirate map. Make sure to draw a compass rose. Add skulls and crossbones or sea-monsters round its rim. If you're feeling especially piratical, age your map by ripping the edges, dampening the paper with lemon juice, and gently heating it (don't set yourself on fire!) This sounds like time for adult help.

Links to a Pirate Map

Well... to a very famous map Drawn by an Actual Pirate: Barthelemy Lafon. (Who hung out with Jean and Pierre Laffite.) This is the first comprehensive map of the Louisiana Territory.

I've been reading up on Lafon... he just gets more fascinating the more I learn: for instance, how many other pirates were ever city councilmen? Lafon was a civic leader in early New Orleans and he was city planner of the oldest part of the Garden District, giving many streets their distinctive Greek names... the names of nymphs and muses!

Treasure Maps

Perhaps nothing excites the imagination more than a map - unless it's a treasure map! But even ordinary maps are extraordinary. What's the next town? Where does this river flow? What's off the edge of the map?

My own design for a compass rose

Get this on a T-shirt at CafePress!
Get this on a T-shirt at CafePress!
The Pirates Laffite: The Treacherous World of the Corsairs of the Gulf
The Pirates Laffite: The Treacherous World of the Corsairs of the Gulf
This is dense, scholarly, and the very best historic account of the pirate brothers Jean and Pierre Laffite. THE resource for serious students of these pirates. Highly recommended.

"On Stranger Tides" by Tim Powers

A fascinating - and very strange - pirate story by an author of mind-bending novels like "The Stress of Her Regard," which mixes English romantic poets and a vampiric succubus / water monster. (Talk about off the edge of the map!) Or "Last Call" which mixes cards, Las Vegas, and the end of the world.

The film rights to "On Stranger Tides" were bought by the film-makers of the next "Pirates of the Caribbean." So I guess we'll see, huh? Expect zombies.

Pirate Films

Swashes buckled!

I love a good pirate movie. My favorites have to be the first three of The Pirates of the Caribbean series. I assume you've seen them? Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow is up there with long John Silver as a classic character. (I'm not as fond of the forth film. Okay, but over-blown, plus I miss Elizabeth and Will and the duos of pirates and soldiers.)

But I also love older pirate movies like the classic Captain Blood. One new favorite is the Really Fun Animated Film by those geniuses at Aadrman: The Pirates! Band of Misfits.Love it.

Pirates In Art - Howard Pyle

Illustrator Howard Pyle's pirate
Illustrator Howard Pyle's pirate

One of the great American illustrators at the turn of the twentieth century, Pyle is justly famous for his images of pirates.

N. C. Wyeth

an illustration for Treasure Island, by N.C. Wyeth
an illustration for Treasure Island, by N.C. Wyeth

Another great early 20th century illustrator. Could he and Pyle have been rivals?

A duel at dawn? Or was it, "Walk the plank ye scurvey dog!"

Or Plunder Some Swag...

Any pirate worth his sea-salt would appreciate the chance at free cargo, eh, Matie? Clip-Art!

BEST Serious Pirate/Nautical Site - Entertaining yet Scholarly

This is my absolute favorite blog about things nautical and piratical.

Be sure to "search" for your favorite topics and historical characters - there's a wealth of earlier posts!

Let's end this Pirate section with a BANG!

Pirate ship battle - Las Vegas?, public domain
Pirate ship battle - Las Vegas?, public domain

Castaways - Shhhh... visit the silence of the marooned, the lost, and the captured in strange lands

Robinson Crusoe
Robinson Crusoe

"Robinson Crusoe," by Daniel Defoe, was probably based on the true story of Alexander Selkirk, who was castaway for four years on a Pacific island. It certainly started the stuck-on-a-desert-island genre. Eventually Robinson was joined in his solitude by Friday, who had escaped from visiting cannibals.

The most recent variation on this lone stranded man idea may be the film "Castaway," where the role of Friday was played by Wilson, the former soccer star. The strangest variant may be the 1964 film, "Robinson Crusoe on Mars."

"Gulliver's Travels." though not strictly speaking a castaway tale, has a similar islands-of-wonder sort of feel, especially when Gulliver is captured by the natives of Lilliput.

Castaways in Books and Film

Robinson Crusoe THE classic book (look in the sidebar for a good version).

And Castaway a very good modern version of the lost on a deserted island genre. I absolutely love Tom Hanks' work here... and Wilson..

Swiss Family Robinson
Swiss Family Robinson

Group-Rate Castaways

"Swiss Family Robinson" is about (guess what?) a Swiss family shipwrecked on the island we all want - it had EVERYTHING! Penguins and ostriches. And whatever was missing was always back on the ship wreck. Handy, huh? I looooved this book as a child and spent endless hours sketching the family's houses - a tree house, a fort, and Rockberg, a cave house.

To the right is an illustration by Harry Roundtree.

Of course, the more modern version of this sort of group shipwreck scenario would be "Gilligan's Island."

Castaways - the Group Pix - Be prepared for an island stay

Silly as it was, I have a real fondness for Gilligan's Isle... Where you could build ANYTHING from coconuts, but you could never escape.

How did MaryAnne bake all those coconut cream pies?

Exploring the Territory

This Lens is just starting its exploration. Please visit again. Bring your machete.

It's already clear that - even with machetes - we'll never hack our way through this whole territory in just one Lens. So other territories of World-Building will be covered under other Lenses, other topics, like:

The World Underneath and Between the Cracks of Ours

This World - Animal Planet Version

Falling Through into Other Worlds

Other Planets

And elsewhere. . .

The Isle of Gorgona (Gorgons? Shiver me timbers!)
The Isle of Gorgona (Gorgons? Shiver me timbers!)

Pirate? or Castaway? - Both options have their appeal.

Sometimes the excitement and adventure of piracy, the blast-yer-eyes!-if-I'll-brush-me-teeth freedom sounds wonderful. At other times it's the get-me-away-from-this solitude and quiet of a desert island (plus the chance to DYI!) that sounds better.

Which sea-going fantasy excites your imagination?

Next World: Supernatural

The next World on our world-building tour is one of Darkness. Populated with vampires, werewolves, zombies and all those guys - - -

(A bit tongue-in-cheek perhaps?)

If you have a world you love to visit, please tell me. Maybe we can pass by on our travels.

Suggest Another Route?

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    • cdevries profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago

      @anonymous: Thanks! and thanks for visiting.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Outstanding lens on a very interesting topic.

    • cdevries profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago

      @fullofshoes: Thanks! Sea adventure isn't everyone's cup of tea (tea sloshes so much at sea) and real pirates are mean, but in the depth of winter, sometimes a book-pirate-adventure is the best kind.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Not normally a fan of this type of literature but I loved reading your lens. Great job.

    • cdevries profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago

      @TolovajWordsmith: Thanks for visiting! I'll have to look for the Amber series... Have you read Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan books?

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image

      Tolovaj Publishing House 

      9 years ago from Ljubljana

      Well, Philip K. Dick created some very interesting worlds, Frederek Pohl too, but my favoritewould be Zelazny's Amber Series. All the best!

    • cdevries profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago

      @KarenCookieJar: Getting to be the wizard is key! I don't know if you read Lois McMaster Bujold? In one of her novels (maybe Cordelia's Honor) a character says it's easy for a egalitarian person to get used to an aristocracy... as long as they get to be an aristocrat.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      I wouldn't mind living in the Harry Potter world (as long as I was a wizard) or The Wheel of Time (Aes Sedai) provided the dark one is defeated.

    • cdevries profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago

      Thanks for the suggestion! I'm not familiar with that one - I'll have to check it out.

    • Peregrina LM profile image

      Peregrina LM 

      9 years ago

      This isn't a particularly sea-going world, but I love the world Patricia McKillip invented for The Riddle-Master of Hed.


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