World building. Of course only sci-fi writers and fantasy writers do that, don’t they? Don’t they?
Every time you write fiction, you build a world. I could even come up with arguments to support this idea regarding non-fiction, but this is my fiction writing site so I won’t do it here. But yes, every fictional work is set within a created world, regardless of genre. You might write contemporary fiction, set in world very much like our own, and peopled with characters very much like ourselves. But it is still not the same as the world you see outside your window. It is an interpretation (one of many) of that world, with elements missing or removed or emphasised, whether deliberately or unwittingly. Sometimes we choose to ignore certain aspects of the world around us, sometimes it’s just that our viewpoint doesn’t enable us to see or understand what is there. Whatever the reason, we are essentially engaged in the creation of a new world as we write our story.
Which gives us a lot of freedom, actually. We can have whatever we like because our world can be whatever we say it is. I write murder mysteries. Some of those are set ‘now’ and some are set in the past. But whenever they are set, I have to sit in front of my computer screen and visualise the world of the story in order to make it come alive for my readers. I have a responsibility, in fact, to make the world of my story real for everyone else. Otherwise they won’t buy into my premise, they won’t get absorbed into the story and they will chuck my book aside and complain, ‘huh, I just didn’t find any of that believable.’ And I don’t want that.
So whether you write romance, action, sci-fi, fantasy with wizards or fantasy with werewolves, detective fiction of any kind, set in any era, or if you write erotica, drama, or children’s fiction, you need to build a world for your reader which is engrossing and utterly absorbing, and which fits the story as if it wasn’t created at all but just sprang to life fully formed. Can you imagine Harry Potter set in any other world? Lord of the Rings in any other landscape? Remember those stories of our childhood where rabbits and mice live in houses in tree trunks with little round windows, and sat in comfy chairs beside roaring fires? The fact that we can still picture all of these images is a tribute to the compelling creativity of their authors. We, as readers, believed it all.
When my character Cressida Barker-Powell-Hopkins flings wide one of the many doors to her copious wardrobes, I have to show her huge range of designer clothes, even though I’ve never had designer clothes myself, and know little of fashion, cheap and practical, or expensive and exclusive. I’ve never hated anyone so much I’d like to kill them, especially not my mother-in-law: quite the contrary, my mother-in-law is lovely. I’ve never lived in a small village, or in a huge house, or had servants. I don’t even drive. I’m not slim enough or fit enough to climb on top of a garage roof and get into a house through the bathroom window to sneak poison into foodstuffs in the kitchen of my nemesis. But Cressida is, and does.
When I get into Cressida-mode, and turn on the computer, or I take up my notebook and pen, it is like opening the bedroom curtains on a new world, a world where all these things are possible, but only if seen through the eyes of my character. I must be her, and see with her eyes the world around her, which she inhabits. As the Bible quotation goes ‘in which we live and move and have our being’.
In my new series, the Dottie Manderson mysteries, (not yet available) the stories are set in the 1930s, and so I had to think about everything – furniture, fashion, idioms and culture, style, attitudes, historical setting, technology, travel, pastimes, work and education. Everything. You might think it’s not a problem, that to a certain extent you can ‘wing it’ and just start writing, filling in any gaps later.
But I ran into problems immediately. If you take a look at my WIP Night And Day page on this site, you will see why. I was immediately stumped by terminology (lounging pyjamas, mannequin), by the mechanics of getting my character from A to B – were taxis horse drawn in the 1930s – hint: no! Would a young woman of good family gone about on her own late in the evening? Hint: no! By what was on at the theatre (the song!) – in fact that’s why I had to change the era of my book – because it was originally set in the 1920s, too early for the song I wanted to use.
When Dottie steps out of the theatre into the London of November 1933, we all need to go with her, and peeping over her shoulder, we need to see what she sees, the dark rain-drenched streets, the tall buildings, the streetlamps which provide such inadequate illumination. We as readers are faced with a newly created, fresh-minted world, and it needs to feel authentic.