A Muse Bouche Review: February 2021
Welcome to our February issue!
It’s the thing that draws you in, makes you feel at home, or chilled to the bone. That lived-in sensation of a story is the product of Worldbuilding. It’s creating a society, an occupied craft, a tribe with ancient beliefs, and making them feel real within your craft. We hope you enjoy this month’s discussion on Worldbuilding.
The Amuse Bouche Review Team
Feature: Dressing the Stage (Guest: B.K. Bass) Writing Advice
WRETCHED (Truncated excerpt) by Cara Crescent (Aedyn Brooks) Fiction
Not Quite the Real World (E.G. Deaile) Writing Advice
If You Build It, They Will ______ (Melissa Yuan-Innes) Essay
The Big, Wide World of the North-Eastern Micro Town (A.P. Miller) Essay
How World Building Can Deepen Point of View (Renée Gendron) Writing Advice
Recent Videos from AMBR Contributors (February 2021)
Team Showcase from AMBR Contributors (February 2021)
Flash Fiction Contest from AMBR Contributors (Contest Announcement)
Dressing the Stage:
Worldbuilding for Contemporary Fiction
by Guest Contributor: B.K. Bass (@B_K_Bass)
There’s a lot that goes into a story, from the pouring out of the author’s soul onto the page to the fine tuning of every comma by an editor. Between these, great imaginings are given life, and that life is given intricacies to make it feel real. The plot is tweaked with an ebb and flow that captures our attention, wrings it tight, and releases that tension with an exciting climax. Characters are given hopes, dreams, fears, abilities, and flaws; then put through a crucible of change so we might imagine how we would fare in such circumstances. Deep themes are explored, ranging from explorations of morality to sociological analysis. All this, and more, to tell a story.
But, where does the story take place? If, as Shakespeare wrote in As You Like It, “all the world’s a stage”, how will we dress that stage to support our players? Where does our drama take place? A hotel in New York? The streets of Paris? The pastures of a rural village?
One can have the most interesting characters and most exciting plot, but they cannot exist in a void. To immerse the reader in a story, it must have a setting that feels real. And more importantly, we must consider how this setting affects the story. What opportunities and obstacles does it present? What are the background characters like? What resources are available, and what is scarce? A love story set in the urban jungle of Chicago will differ wildly from one set in an actual jungle in South America.
To answer all these questions and set this stage for our story, we’ll need to do a little worldbuilding.
What is Worldbuilding?
During my career as an author, publisher, and self-stylized mentor, I’ve found this to be both the simplest question to answer succinctly and the most complicated to explain in detail. At its most basic—to draw on my own Shakespearean analogy from before—worldbuilding is dressing the stage to act as a backdrop for a story. At its most complicated, worldbuilding considers all the intricacies of how a setting might influence a story.
Most resources on writing fiction, from books to university lectures, will divide the art into three main pillars: character, plot, and setting. Whenever you’re dealing with the setting, you’re dealing with worldbuilding. Where does the story take place? What does the air smell like? What kind of people live there? What do the houses look like? How are they decorated? These are all worldbuilding questions.
Worldbuilding is easy to define, but those simple definitions don’t begin to touch on the breadth of the process. Because no two authors approach it the same, and no two stories require the same level of detail, the actual process of worldbuilding is as varied as the ubiquitous human quality of imagination itself. Every decision an author makes about their setting, from the vase of flowers on Betty’s mantle to the country in which the story takes place, are worldbuilding decisions.
Some stories may need little more than to describe the accoutrement of a single room. Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 classic Dial M for Murder is an iconic example of this, taking place entirely in a flat in London. On the other side of this coin, we might think of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, taking place across a vast, diverse landscape filled with a variety of cultures, brought to life with entire fictional languages, and rooted in thousands of years of rich history.
Is the later a better story for having more worldbuilding than the former? No. They’re both highly-regarded classics. But, if Hitchcock hadn’t made the decision to put a telephone in that flat, he’d have ended up with a much different tale!
If you have ever written fiction, you’ve done worldbuilding, whether you might have intended to or even realize it. Many think of worldbuilding as a process exclusive to speculative fiction authors. We imagine fantasy realms filled with mystical creatures and the vastness of space peopled with eccentric alien beings. But, even the most familiar of contemporary fiction—stories set in the real world and in the same time in which the author is living—requires worldbuilding.
Building the Real
John turned the key in the ignition and the old truck’s engine rumbled to life. As the tires bounced over the worn gravel road, he strained to see. The headlights struggled to cut through the fog. Grasping, skeletal arms of ancient oak trees reached out over the road, and spanish moss whispered against the roof of the cab as he drove under them.
Depending on where you live, the images that come to mind from that paragraph may hit close to home. If you’re from Florida, you’ve probably driven down this very road or one much like it. But, there’s elements of worldbuilding strewn all through this. Each element is a conscious decision made by the author to set a scene, from the old truck to the gravel road, from the description of the trees to the inclusion of spanish moss, and the fog. Carefully arranged to set the stage, these elements paint for the reader a visceral landscape upon which our story takes place.
Betty reached over to set her teacup down. Her hand trembled, sending droplets over the edge to rain on the rose-embroidered silk doily. Brown stains bled through the fibers of the fabric, spreading tendrils of imperfection like the doubts creeping through her mind.
And more than set dressing, worldbuilding can provide opportunities to delve deeper into things like our character’s emotions. It creates opportunities for metaphors and similes. It can provide a point of reference to which most readers can relate. The teacup, the doily, and even the tea itself are all elements added to the stage to enrich the moment.
Some worldbuilding elements can feel mundane. An old truck. A teacup. The gas station where two country roads intersect. The flower stall in the town square. But in the context of a story, these mundane elements can change everything. Whether Betty has a vase of flowers on her mantle or a plush unicorn can change the feeling of a scene. Imagine the stark difference when she finally loses her cool and bashes John over the head with the object from said mantle. All these tiny decisions provide a backdrop for a story and shape how it progresses. The author can use these small details to immerse the reader in the story and make everything feel more real. No matter how dramatic the tension between John and Betty is, without a living world for them to populate, the reader will have a hard time relating to the story.
Worldbuilding contemporary settings can be taken to many different levels. The examples above show the art at its most basic. Set dressing. Mood, atmosphere, and props. But, we can take things further than that. Even if your story takes place in a real town, maybe the town you live in, you might need to create something new. The lake house you always imagined building, the diner on the town square that isn’t actually there, the bodega on the corner rebuilt into a mysterious antique emporium.
This can be taken even further. Many authors have set stories in the real world, but created entire fictional towns where they occur. Two of the most famous examples of these are Castle Rock, Maine, created by Stephen King, and Arkham, Massachusetts, created by H.P. Lovecraft. Both authors wrote stories in contemporary settings, but crafted entire fictional towns from the ground up. There’s a great advantage to this, as it combines all the benefits of writing in the real world with the benefits of writing in a fictional setting. Writing in the real world is the ultimate expression of Mark Twain’s advice to “write what you know”, and creates a setting any reader can relate to since they’re living in the same space. But at the same time, it gives the flexibility of making that world what you wish it to be. It also avoids being bogged down in research, such as making sure the ironwork on the local pub’s balcony is accurately described.
Where to Start?
As a contemporary fiction author, the idea of worldbuilding might feel foreign to you. The task of designing a setting might feel daunting. But as we’ve seen from the examples above, this is something you’ve likely already done before, over and over, without realizing it.
The big difference with planned worldbuilding is simply approaching the task aforethought with a goal in mind, and then setting out to achieve that goal. In writing without worldbuilding in advance, all these elements will pop up organically as you traverse the story. But with some planning, you can lay out a carefully crafted landscape that both enriches the reader’s immersion into your story and adds layers of depth to the story itself.
It would take an entire book to discuss all the ins and outs of worldbuilding to the extent of outlining a how-to on the subject, but I do have a few key pieces of advice that, no matter what you’re writing, will help you develop a more immersive setting without getting bogged down in the details.
Avoid Worldbuilding Syndrome
This is likely more of a problem for speculative fiction authors, but it’s a trap any one of us could easily fall into. Worldbuilding Syndrome is the situation where an author gets so caught up in the process of designing their setting, that they go down a rabbit hole that seems to have no end and can’t find a point to say, “It’s done,” and get on with writing their story. When approaching worldbuilding for writing fiction, many will argue it’s best to have a clear idea of the story first and then to design the setting to serve that story. Once you have what you need to fulfill that purpose, you’re ready to write.
The Iceberg Theory, or, Don’t Take a Dump on Your Story
The dreaded info-dump plagues speculative fiction authors. As a contemporary fiction author who has spent weeks or months carefully crafting the details of a setting, you might find yourself writing one of these. The Iceberg Theory developed by Ernest Hemingway approaches a story by only revealing the details that lie on the surface. You may have thousands of words of worldbuilding that details every aspect of the setting. These details are important. Without these details, the world may not make sense. But, we need only a glimpse of them, as long as what lies below the surface connects them in a logical framework.
Stay in the Moment
When revealing these details, keep your perspective in mind. Most modern fiction is told from a limited point of view, be it in first- or third-person. This means the reader is experiencing the world through a character’s senses. Instead of writing exposition on every detail of Betty’s apartment, give us glimpses of it through her eyes. Don’t describe the antique store when she’s planning a trip there, tell us what she sees as she walks through the door. This in the moment revealing of the setting is a key to immersion, and it’s also a key to following the advice we often hear to “show, don’t tell”.
While worldbuilding might feel like the realm of speculative fiction authors, it’s important to remember that setting is still one of the three pillars of fiction, even for contemporary fiction authors. You wouldn’t build a house with only three walls, so it makes sense you wouldn’t craft a story with character and plot, but no setting. While much of what you write may be grounded more in research than design, remember you’ll still have decisions to make about how to dress your stage. As the author, the world is yours to craft as you will, even if it’s the real world.
B.K. Bass is the author of over a dozen works of speculative fiction, a history buff, and a regular contributor to Worldbuilding Magazine. You can find more articles about the writing craft and discover B.K.’s books at http://bkbass.com.
(Truncated excerpt) by Cara Crescent
Presented with Interview by Aedyn Brooks (@aedynbrooks)
When I think of some of my favorite books that have great world building concepts from the first page, I can’t help but think of multi-award-winning author, Cara Crescent. I asked her how she creates complex alien worlds, but first, she provided an example from her sci-fi romance WRETCHED. ~ Aedyn Brooks
Royal Palace, Grand Helo Province, Troon
Antlia Wall, Hydra Supercluster
406 light years from Earth
Their captors were returning.
Somewhere down the hall, keys clattered against steel bars, echoing through the corridor outside their cell. Donovan Reese winced as the old, rusty hinges on the exterior gate screamed.
“Don’t show any weakness.”
Donovan groaned, turning his head to glare at Macie. His big, badass business partner spouted that bit of wisdom from where he lay in a broken heap on the floor next to him.
If it wouldn’t have hurt so much, Donovan would’ve laughed in his face.
Macie stared back through blackened, swollen eyes. Blood matted his blond hair and his lip was split in two places. The rest of him looked worse. The Vladsets had gone easy on Macie.
“Are you trying to tell me I need to get off my ass?”
Donovan wasn’t particularly keen on moving. The floor of their cell might be hard and dirty, but the rough stone acted like a makeshift icepack against his swollen, overheated body.
Macie half-chuckled, half-moaned. “Come on. I’ll help you up, if you help me.”
Donovan snorted, rolled to his side, and pushed himself to his left hand and right knee, pausing to give his protesting muscles time to adjust. “You figure out what they want yet?”
Macie shook his head. “Don’t recognize the dialect. I’m catching bits and pieces. This last go-round, one of them referred to what they’ve been doing to us as hazing trials.”
“Yeah, well, back on Earth it’s called torture.”
Donovan put the heel of his swollen hand on the wall and leveraged himself to his feet. When he put weight on his left leg, pain shot through his knee, fierce and instantaneous. Neither of them could take much more Vladset hospitality.
Macie coughed, turned his face away, and spit a bloody wad on the floor. “I caught something about proving we’re strong enough to protect their treasure.”
Donovan snorted. “Yeah, well, I don’t want their fucking treasure.”
“Don’t tell them that. Take whatever the Queen wants to give you with humble gratitude. Don’t let them see weakness.”
The steady thud of boots grew louder and his heart picked up pace, doing double time to the tempo.
“Come on, Professor.” Donovan held out his hand and hauled Macie upright. “Anything broken?”
Macie smoothed out his leather vest and patted the dust from his jeans. “My nose. Couple ribs, I think. You?”
“Hand. Pretty sure my kneecap is dislocated.”
He winced as he straightened. Maybe some bruised ribs, too.
Macie touched his jaw and grunted. “At least they left your face alone.”
“Probably figured I was ugly enough.” People tended to avoid looking at his face due to a plethora of deep, webbed scars cutting across the left side and bisecting his eye.
“Sorry ’bout this.” Macie sighed and the hardcore badass deflated right out of him. “Seems like I’m always getting you in shit.”
Donovan shook his head. “Don’t start. I’ll kick your ass later.” If we live. “For now, don’t think about it.”
As the heavy footsteps neared, they both took a deep, bracing breath and donned an air of false bravado that bordered on annoyed impatience. Macie folded his thick, tattooed arms over his chest, which must have hurt like hell if he had broken ribs. Donovan braced his hands on his hips, struggling to ignore the shooting pain that ran from his busted hand to his elbow.
He instilled as much venom as he could muster into his tone when the Vladsets came into view. “What the hell do you want now?”
The guards stood well over seven feet tall, and while humanoid, the bluish-gray skin tone and overstated musculature made them seem unaccountably alien. Boney, black spikes ran up their spines and across their shoulders. Their bald heads gleamed in the dim light and their eyes blazed a deep red.
The guards had someone new with them. This Vladset was slimmer than the guards, his face lined with deep wrinkles. “I’m Quimet, Queen Vessa’s chamberlain.”
Donovan narrowed his eyes. He spoke Standard. None of the others had. And chamberlain? He glanced at Macie, who widened his eyes, tipped his head to the side, and blew out his cheeks.
In other words, this Quimet asshole had some clout.
“You’ll tell me if you’ve ever mistreated a female.”
Vladsets didn’t seem to ask much of anything, they stated everything as “You will,” never “Will you?”
They both answered. “No.”
Briefly, dismissively, Quimet’s red gaze flicked to Macie. “You’ll tell me, Chief, if you are mated.”
Donovan’s stomach bottomed out. This line of questioning couldn’t go anywhere good. He wasn’t mated. Wasn’t married. Didn’t want to be. “No.”
“Bring the chief.” Quimet strode away.
1. This is a brilliant setup to your Sci-Fi romance. You foreshadow the alien race’s brutality in a clever way. How did you design the Vladsets?
They are loosely based on ancient Spartan society—a warrior society. Their physical attributes are along the same vein—they are built to be the ultimate warriors. Tall, muscular, thick-skinned, and spiked. In the opening, our hero has had little interaction with this race beyond being an unwilling participant in their hazing trials, so he’s a biased narrator with very little grace for them. Eventually, you do get to see some of their better qualities through Sorcha—honesty, diligence, and fierce loyalty.
2. What are your key tips for creating a believable alien society?
Oh, this is the fun part! Aspects of society I try to include are language, politics, religion, trade/currency, fashion, mythology, history, technology, and customs. That last one is a big one—what are their traditions, how do they view marriage, birth, and death, and what virtues do they hold dear? I try to touch on each aspect of the society somewhere in the story through conversation, introspection, or observation. I probably only use about a quarter of the information that I come up with for a civilization. That said, the effort is rarely wasted as the material can be used in future stories. To make aspects of the society more believable, ground them in something the reader does know by having human characters compare/contrast them to something on Earth. Lastly, don’t forget the setting—the biodiversity and geology of the world.
3. What are some tips of avoiding an impractical alien world?
Two things come to mind, one to avoid and one to aspire to. When writing science fiction, you’re already suspending the belief of your reader, so it doesn’t take much to tip the scale and have them scratching their heads. To prevent this, establish the rules and laws of your world and stick to them. Readers are amazing and will go right along with whatever you tell them is true because they want to enjoy your story. As authors, it’s our job to fulfill the unspoken promise that we will not disappoint. Never break your own rules.
The thing to aspire to, is to take each aspect of your society and follow it through to its logical conclusion. For example: I recently read a manuscript of an otherwise excellent novel in which everyone in the universe spoke the same language: English. There are over 6,000 languages on Earth alone, so I had questions. Why? Who in the universe decided this? How did they decide which language? Can all the races in the universe pronounce the same vowel and consonant sounds? Unfortunately, the author never explained. Try to ensure each aspect of the world has been thought through to its logical conclusion so readers aren’t left frustrated and confused. Fortunately, the author of that piece found an easy solution to the problem—they came up with names for several alien languages and the main characters used electronic translators.
Personally, I like to take each aspect we mentioned above and fill out a worksheet which I keep next to me while I write. This helps me stay true to my original ideas and helps me spot when I haven’t fleshed an idea out enough.
If you would like to read WRETCHED, you can find this on Amazon. It is free on Kindle Unlimited or $2.99 on Kindle.
You can follow Cara Crescent on
Amazon author page https://www.amazon.com/Cara-Crescent/e/B01DSIIK4S?ref_=dbs_p_ebk_r00_abau_000000
Not Quite the Real World
by E.G. Deaile (@egdeaile_writer)
My sci-fi and fantasy stays close to our modern world. I like urban and suburban settings, generally on the East Coast of the United States of America. Fictionalizing those locales with a skyscraper basement eating worm or some demon-based magic to blow up in everyone’s face is a wonderful writing journey. This kind of world-building can be tricky. It seems easy on the surface, but the closer to the “real” world you get, the better a liar―I mean writer―you have to be.
Here are a few of the tidbits I’ve learned over time from experience and craft exploration that I hope help in your own writing journey.
Minimize the Mundane
Your reader believes their time is valuable. It’s a side effect of today’s participation trophy society. The problem is then that if you put a Lord of the Rings style explanation into how your characters go to the bathroom, your reader may erroneously believe you are throwing their time down the toilet. Even if they eliminate by standing on their head and hooking up their ponytails to the plumbing, if it isn’t relevant to the plot, it’s just shitty writing.
Done well in the movie Demolition Man with the three seashells. The movie spends about a minute of screen time on the topic. But it helps us feel out of place right along with the main character. And they don’t need to explain it for everyone to remember it.
Highlight the Hijinks
When your dinosaur detective enters an opulent modern hotel, give us a few spare details about the lobby. What I want to know about is how did a triceratops fit her tail and her horns through the revolving door. If something is similar to our current world, you can better spend your time highlighting what is different.
Done well in Naked in Death by J.D. Robb, where we have a standard detective story set in the future. She does an amazing job showing details of what has evolved, while leaving the expected detective tropes familiar. One example is a when computer station doesn’t get much explanation because it would look much the same as our idea of one.
Hints not Bibles
I know you researched basket weaving for sixteen hours. You are proud of the thirty-five hundred baskets that spill out of your closet because your family didn’t like the first few you gave them as gifts. But just because you became an expert basket maker and have woven six full-sized hot air balloon gondolas does not mean your readers need the manual. No one reads the manual. There’s a reason for this. It’s boring as hell. If your book reads like a manual, that damned reader will start valuing their time more than your basket weaving.
Done well in The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg. Like many other magic novels, there is an apprenticeship full of hard work and rote memorization. She handles this by infusing new information into each task, and keeping the learning section long in the timeline, but brief on the page.
There Can Be Only One
You generally get away with one big lie. The rest of the lies and truth you put forth have to support this lie. In Highlander, it is that a race of secret immortals lives among us filthy humans. In Outlander, it is that magic time travel is possible. Either way, you have Scottish warriors sporting kilts and killing people in beautiful ways.
I like to think that if the author is extraordinary, they might be able to get away with one big lie and one big truth, but that may be asking too much since your readers are now weaving baskets and running successful shops on Etsy.
Writing Excuses Podcast – Season 15 – World Building
Helping Writers Become Authors Podcast
How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy by Orson Scott Card – Book
If You Build It, They Will _____
by Melissa “Yi” Yuan-Innes (@dr_sassy)
Ooh! Ooh! World building!
Crucial for all genres, but most famous in science fiction and fantasy.
“The robot turned on its left side,” said Kristine Kathryn Rusch in her class.
Get it? Is the robot turning on a switch, or rolling over on its left side? Your readers don’t know because you haven’t given enough detail.
This was tough for me because I’m not big on setting, government structure and politics, long descriptions of flora and fauna and dirt … I like fascinating characters doing wild things!
So I really had to sharpen up my tools in the world building kit.
First of all, you have to figure out what your world is like. You have two choices.
1. You can build from the outside in.
Are you on Earth?
How was your world created? When? Do you have a sun, a moon, or stars?
Who lives here? Humanoids? Fungi? What kind of diseases do you get?
Many writers love to play by imagining their worlds.
If this is your jam, go to this site and download their guide: https://blog.reedsy.com/worldbuilding-guide
2. You can build from the inside out.
This is my method. Start with a grain of sand, and then you can think of who is looking at the grain, why it’s important, is there a beach, and so on.
I’m an emergency doctor mainly known for my mysteries, thrillers, and non-fiction. I operate on a need-to-know basis. I love to start with one clue or image and work from there. I also write frantically for the few minutes I have before running on to the next topic.
Once you’ve built your world in your head, you have to figure out how to convey that to the reader.
No matter how awesome your world is, don’t overwhelm readers or listeners. It’s good that you know what happened to your protagonist’s 6th great-grandmother on planet Hoopow in year 2784, but you need to impart that info only if and when it serves the story.
I tended to give too little information. I’m like the author of a math textbook writing, “We leave this problem as an exercise for our readers.” Me, I love filling in the blanks when I read. I consider it freedom and a good use of my intelligence. Unfortunately, 90 percent of readers are left saying, “Huh?”
Once I realized that was a serious problem for my writing, I had to figure out the Goldilocks level of detail. I went from giving readers almost no information or inundating them with the smell of Crab People eating crudités, for example. (I haven’t written this story yet, but I should!)
So when SF Canada and the Canadian Authors Association asked me to give a webinar in August 2020, I deliberately chose world building to challenge myself. I listened to a bunch of podcasts, especially the Odyssey ones (https://www.odysseyworkshop.org/resources/podcasts/) and read a bunch of books so I could share clear, excellent, and Canadian examples of world building!
Here are some words of wisdom from some of my SF Canada friends, explaining why they create new universes:
Jennifer Kennedy: “A sense of wonder. I feel about monsters the way Wordsworth felt about rainbows.”
Su J. Sokol: “Imagining a different world is the first step to improving the one we’re living in.”
Cait Gordon: “I get to experience living in a society I can only dream of on Earth …
Everything is accessible and accommodating, so my disabled, Deaf, blind, neurodiverse
aliens just … are.”
And the one from an anonymous writer that made me stop and realize, again, that writing and world building is a sacred privilege:
“Neglectful family, dad worked two jobs, mom was an alcoholic, violently sexually abused as a child.
At some point early on I saw a magazine with a picture of a rocket ship on the cover, and thought ‘I want to go there.’
People talk about escapism like its a bad thing sometimes. It’s not.”
Keep writing. Don’t worry about how pretty it is.
Build that world. It will get better.
The Big, Wide World of the North-Eastern Micro Town
by A.P. Miller (@Millerverse)
I was born in central Pennsylvania, spent my formative years in a micro-town, and went to high school in a class of only eighty-four students. I now reside in the two-hundred-twenty-fourth largest city in the contiguous United States. A city, I might add, that is as different from my homeland as my homeland is different from the planet Venus. When I try to tell people down here what my young life was like, I have to tell them about a place they can’t visually understand if they’ve never seen it. Relaying my young life requires a very writerly skill: world building.
For the longest time, I really thought world building was something that only fantasy and science fiction authors could partake in. As a writer, my style is far from the great works of high fantasy, so I never thought I was an active world builder. It wasn’t until I was preparing for a roundtable discussion on world building, for the A Muse Bouche Review YouTube Channel, that I could see I build worlds all the time. In preparing to write this piece, I wanted to tap into my greatest world building effort. In all my life, I’ve never had to put so much energy into building a visual world through the spoken word than telling people about where I’m from.
In my own rudimentary way, my system for building a world boils down to four pillars. Those pillars hold up the world and make it substantial. Those Millerian pillars are: geography (what the landscape looks like, borders, habitat, etc.), culture (what the people are like and how they govern themselves), history, and progress (what factors are in play that are going to change the existing way of life?). The other world building activities I engage in are directly related to, and must serve, those pillars.
Understanding the Miller-Pillars, allow me to describe my homeland to you, and let’s see if I can’t give you an accurate picture of it:
Janesville, Pennsylvania was a town struggling with its own identity. The post office sign declared the region Smithmill, the sign from the highway called it Almaden, the locals called the general area Fernwood, but I’ve always called it home.
The streets were ravaged by the climate, potholes erupting in the asphalt from water seeping through its porous nature and the bitter winter winds forcing that water to freeze and expand. Banks of snow along the sides of the road were filthy from the edges of snowplows gouging the Earth below the snow-cover. The forests had a broad network of scars in them, from the countless coal-ectomies performed to fuel the Union’s efforts in the Civil War. When the wind blew, you could hear the broken-hearted stories about what the town used to be like before the coal industry died.
In the spring, the wind was thick with the fragrances of scores of wild flowers and the fresh cut grass from the lawns of homeowners who’d spent the era between October and April pining for a respite from the cold. When your front yard is a functional tundra, and when the dry heat of an oil furnace makes a morning nosebleed a commonplace occurrence, you endure the winters by dreaming of the temperate days to come, but never last quite long enough.
The street I lived on was an orphan of time. Cable television hadn’t arrived into the area for years after everyone else was enjoying the HBO Free Preview Weekend. The Internet of the area was no more of a useful innovation than the telegram because of how slow it was. Streaming music wasn’t an option and the surrounding mountain ranges made the selection of radio signals an authoritarian edict. Those who had satellite dishes in their yards were kings and queens — they had dominion over knowledge of the world outside of sentinel-like peaks and valleys of the natural rock formations that guarded the few highways that could provide an escape.
The terrain had to be protective and exclusionary, because the grounds were protecting a very special magic: the hearts of the people who lived there. When new children were born, the elder women made colorful blankets by hand for the new life. Everyone knew everyone, making secrets impossible to keep. Hopefully, your neighbor used that knowledge for good deeds, but not always. There was a sacred ritual performed when someone passed away — neighbors would present offerings of meals prepared from family recipes stored in the heart, people would wake up and find their driveways plowed clean of snow so they had one less thing to worry about while they were grieving, and condolences weren’t put into words, but through a strong hand on the shoulder, or a hug that said more than the tongue ever could. You didn’t pay a neighbor for their help, that debt was paid in a case of beer, and a plate of someone’s world-famous recipe covered in tinfoil.
Time may be slowed, but it still marches on. The children I grew up with are becoming the leaders at the job-sites, chief storytellers at the local bar, and will be the elders eventually. Our generation has challenges the generation before didn’t, but they’ll endure, they have no other option. That town was built on hardship, by rough hands with bloodied knuckles. I may be in a city by the ocean now, but the furnace that forged me was cut into the side of a snow-covered Pennsylvania mountain.
How did I do? If you’re not from the North East, do you think you have a good idea of what my hometown was like? If you’re from the North East, did I conjure an accurate depiction?
World building does not necessarily have to by creating distant alien worlds, but can also be domestic worlds that are alien to everyone who has never lived them.
How World Building Can Deepen Point of View
by Renée Gendron (@ReneeGendron)
As writers we have a duty of care to our readers. People trust us to immerse them in a rich world with interesting characters that have to figure out complex problems. People trust us to entertain them, make them cry, laugh, and even scare them.
How can we do that?
We stack words to make sure how we present the world means something to the characters. Each word in your work needs to advance the plot. The more your words engage in double duty (advancing the plot and driving character), the more immersive your reader experience. Let’s take a closer look at some aspects of worldbuilding: a) culture and b) geography.
Culture is the customs, artistic expression, and habits of a social group. Music, dance, dress, hairstyles, religion, and national pass times. There are other aspects of culture such as gender norms, the role of extended families, ceremonies to mark important dates (such as the end of a war or the birth of a person who contributed to the nation).
Culture is meaningless until a someone interacts with it. It’s through the character the reader understands the world. If the character enjoys having Sunday dinners with their extended family, it shows the reader their values. If, however, the character avoids having weekly diner with their extended family, it demonstrates conflict and their values.
When looking at worldbuilding, explore the intersection between character, world, and conflict. If your character agrees with everything, there isn’t much of a book. However, if your character must overcome cultural norms and pressures to do something they do not want to do, that’s the beginning of an interesting story.
When exploring culture and its impact on characters, flesh out what culture enables a person to do and how it hinders them.
A final word on culture, don’t forget organisational culture. If your MC works, that particular workplace has a culture. Let’s say the organisational culture promotes one set of values and the societal culture promotes a different set of values. For example, throughout the 1800s and early 1900s, organisations that promoted the right to vote for women had one set of values that ran against the grain of broader society. How would your main character navigate those values and relationships? If your main character was someone advocating the right to vote for women, they would view the conflict and pressures differently than a police office sent to enforce existing laws. It’s the nuances in these details that create tension and add depth to your world.
When looking at culture, ask the following questions:
- How does this cultural norm advance or impede my character’s growth?
- How is one cultural norm interpreted differently between characters and how can that different be used to create tension?
Geography can set the tone of the scene, chapter or book. Compare a lush meadow on a sunny day versus a swamp on a moonless night. Both settings evoke different emotions and present unique challenges to character’s goals. A lush meadow might be home to leprechauns and unicorns that spear outsiders. A swamp might be the home to alligators. Both have hazards.
Like culture, geography can be used to distinguish characters and add conflict. Someone who grew up in a swamp and knows how to navigate their passages is less likely to be tense than someone who grew up in another geographic region, say a city. There’s opportunity for more tension between the person familiar with the swamp needs something from the person who grew up in the city and there’s a seesaw of trust between them.
Here are some questions to answer:
- How does geography improve the competence of a character?
- How does geography reduce the competence of a character?
- How does geography create tension between characters?
- How does geography create new problems and obstacles for characters?
Geography reinforces culture. Each social group has rituals and customs that are born of the place. What does a sacred mountain mean to a group and how does that group show reverence to it? The way seasons are experienced (dry/raining, four seasons, dark/light, etc.) impact movement, rituals, perceptions of time, and wellbeing.
- Name three ways geography has influenced seasons in your work in progress
- Name three ways seasons have impacted the story
Language is impacted by geography. I heard, and am inclined to believe, that Canadians speak with their teeth because it’s too cold to fully open our mouths. The very sound of our dialect is influenced by the geography.
- How does geography impact the speech of your characters?
- What kind of conflicts do different language groups experience in your world?
- What’s the relationships between language and territory?
If you take some time to dig a little deeper into your world building, you’ll create nuances in your conflicts. You’ll have time to explore why one character is keen to go to the swamp while another is wary. You’ll be able to create fresh takes on problems and obstacles and keep your readers engaged throughout the entire book.
Explore the depths of your world and don’t be afraid to draw out unique aspects. It will make your work memorable.
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