Humans are an information-loving species. ‘Alternative facts’ and other such nonsense notwithstanding, as a species we vacuum up new knowledge with great enthusiasm, and then tell everyone we know. With access to the internet, we typically do this as quickly as we can type on our smartphones, but for most of human history information took much more time to move.
Whether you’re writing historical fiction, or creating a fictional world from scratch, you will want to think about how quickly and easily characters can transmit information. Does your setting have the printing press, or another way of mass-producing written material? Do they have a way of transmitting spoken or signed language? How does one send a message to a friend or relative or trading partner in another country? Is there even a reliable method for doing so?
These factors will have an enormous influence on how quickly and easily your characters can communicate, and also how much information they have about the world outside their lived experience. In a setting without a cheap, accessible method for accessing books (or your society’s equivalent), information will be closely tied to wealth and power.
There might also be some social restrictions on information flow. Throughout history, oppressive governments or groups have forbidden literacy to whatever swath of the population they’re trying to control. Or governments or other groups might censor news and other information in order to control public opinion.
Remember that if you’re writing historical fiction, the asymmetries in who was allowed or able to create content, and which content was considered worthy of recording, will effect what is available to you in the historical record. Just because a particular viewpoint isn’t turning up in libraries doesn’t mean it didn’t exist, and it’s important to remember who might be erased from the historical record so you can put extra effort into researching their experiences.
If you’re creating a world from scratch, this task is somewhat easier, since you know the objective truth of your setting’s history. That said, you should probably answer the following questions:
- Does your society have a writing system? If not, what is their go-to method for passing on information?
- How long does it take for information to travel?
- Who gets to access that information? Are there restrictions on who can create content or learn particular information?
- Does anyone act as a gatekeeper for disseminating information? If so, who are they and what is their agenda?
Specificity in your worldbuilding is always a plus. Thinking about how information moves and who might have more or less information about their world also gives you some tools for generating suspense or plot complications that fit organically into your story.