Tag Archives: creating a world

World-building, part 2: building reality #amwriting

When I write a world that my characters might live in, I want to express more than merely the sights, the sounds, and the smells. I want to convey the emotions that place evokes for me, the author.

The fact is, unless we are there physically, other places don’t really exist for us. For this reason, the only world that really exists in this incarnation is the space we physically occupy as individuals.

The only true reality is the space we can see, hear, smell, and touch. This is our setting, the world in which our life story plays out.

In literary terms, what is setting? It is the environment your characters live and interact with. It is scenery, topography, plants, and animals. The setting is also comprised of a place in time, defined by an era, or a level of technology.

These aspects of the setting are crucial to making a story real to a reader. However, if they are shown as unconnected elements, this setting lacks something. We must inject these elements with the indefinable fantasy thingamajig we call atmosphere.

Perhaps you experience a sense of longing when remembering a particular place.  For me, one place represents a feeling of home and lingers in my heart. When I am writing in my fictional world, I am drawing on the memory of that long-ago place.

That lost time and place has a hold on my emotions and is made brighter and shinier by the false lighting of memory. This is why, despite the fact my childhood home is a real place, it is also a fantasy.

A reader’s perception of a setting’s reality is affected by emotions they aren’t even aware of. We must give the reader something they can subliminally recognize, something they can relate to. We need to convey a sense of familiarity to a place the reader has never been.

“Familiar” does not mean safe or comforting. It means the elements of the environment are recognizable on a subconscious level, something the reader can understand without having experienced it, or being bluntly told.

This is why I draw maps. If your characters must do any traveling in a fantasy world, you probably should make a rudimentary map. The map is my indispensable tool for keeping my story straight.

It doesn’t have to be fancy. All that is required is a pencil sketch showing a few lines for roads and the general location of any cities or topographical features that come into the story.

When your characters are traveling great distances, they may pass through villages on their way, and if these places figure in the events of the book, they should be noted on the map. This prevents you from:

  • accidentally naming a second village the same name later in the manuscript
  • misspelling the town’s name later in the narrative
  • forgetting where the characters were in chapter four

Perhaps the land itself will impede your characters. If geologic features are pertinent to the story, you will want to note their location on your map so that you don’t contradict yourself if your party must return the way they came:

  • rivers
  • swamps
  • mountains
  • hills
  • towns
  • forests
  • oceans

Even if your work is wholly set on a space station/ship, consider making a floor plan.

My novel, Billy Ninefingers, is set almost entirely in a wayside inn. I made a drawing of the floorplan for my purposes because that is the world in which the story takes place.

In the narrative, if you are writing fantasy, I suggest you keep the actual distances mushy because some readers will nitpick the details, no matter how accurate you are. Yes, you wrote it, but they don’t see it the way you do.

Using medieval distances won’t help, because they’re not concrete—a league might be three miles or one and a half, depending on the country and era. Some readers will argue that their version of a league is the only real version and blah blah blah….

When it comes to creating reality on paper, a perception of familiarity is everything. Use your memory to visualize the scenery:

Imagine the surface of a pond. On a windless day, the pool will be calm, still. The sky and any overhanging trees will be reflected in it.

Add in a storm, and things change. The waters move. Ripples and small waves stir the surface, which now only reflects the dark gray of the stormy sky.

Atmosphere is the part of a world that is created by colors, scents, ambient sounds, and how the visuals are shown. It is visual and tied to the setting, but the perception of it is affected by the moods and emotions of the characters.

From the first paragraph of a story, we want to use the setting to establish a feeling of atmosphere, the general mood that will hint at what is to come.

We do this by employing lighter or darker descriptions. A dark, gloomy setting created by “weighted words” establishes an ominous atmosphere, which will be reflected in the mood of your characters.

I think of “weighted words” as those with strong descriptive power, and which don’t need a lot of support from adjectives and adverbs to convey their intensity.

Lighter words will create an atmosphere that feels brighter.

We have mentioned before that while the two terms, mood and atmosphere, are usually used as synonyms, they are different from each other. In literature, mood refers to the internal feelings and emotions of an individual as often as it does the overall atmosphere of a piece. The term atmosphere is always associated with a setting.

Many sci-fi and fantasy novels are set in real-world environments. The settings are familiar, so close to what we know, that readers have no trouble accepting that world.

I love books where the author’s gift for world-building creates a layer of reality I can immediately “fall” into. Setting, action, interaction—these most obvious components combine to showcase the more profound aspects of the story.

I have been returning to the works of other authors to see how they create their worlds, how they choose words to build a setting and create atmosphere and mood.

Some of their tricks work, and some not so much, but I keep reading and learning. By figuring out what didn’t work for me in a novel, I hope to avoid those mistakes in my own work.

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World building – immediate community #amwriting

We have discussed the larger aspects of world-building – power structures such as religion and politics. We’ve talked about food, and about how word choices convey imagery which contributes to the reader’s visualization of the written world. Now we’re going to examine the immediate world, the community your character lives in.

If I were writing a story starring me as the main character, I would open it with a couple of 50-something empty nesters moving to a small quarry town, twenty miles south of the state capitol.

But what sort of town is this?

Tenino is a bedroom community; the commute isn’t too bad and homes here are affordable, whereas homes in Olympia tend to be quite expensive. This town has a long history of boom and bust; quarrymen, loggers, and farmers settled here.

Timber is no longer big here. Nowadays our town is famous for Wolf Haven International, sandstone art, crafted whiskey, and wine. We still have a few large cattle ranches out on the Violet Prairie, but 5-to-7-acre executive “horse properties,” llama farms, alpaca ranches, goat yoga, and soap-making classes have found fertile ground here. In the early part of the 20th century bootlegging was an industry here (my maternal grandfather) so having the distilleries is the legal continuation of an old tradition.

It’s an isolated town, filled with quirky, wonderful people, and situated in a valley with heavily forested hills on the outskirts. If a fictional story were set in this town, it would feature the same political schisms that divide the rest of our country. There are other tensions. Some families have been here for generations, and  a few don’t appreciate the influx of low-paid state workers buying cookie-cutter tract homes here.

Other than the few local businesses, most people commute to work in Olympia or one of the other surrounding communities.

My street is a stretch of rough blacktop with no sidewalks. It runs east and west, with a fabulous view of Mount Rainier rising at the east end. It is lined with homes on both sides, but it’s divided. A nicely landscaped mobile home park is on the north side of the street, across from my front door. On the south side of the street is the long row of forty stick-built homes, built in 2005 just before the housing bubble crashed. On my side of the street, the row of homes are nearly identical, as there are only two types of floor plans, one for three bedrooms (mine) or the four-bedroom version.

This makes for a seriously boring-looking neighborhood, so for a few years we had the only house with an orange door.

The day we moved into our brand-new home in 2005, two inches of rain fell, making moving a misery. Our new house rose out of a sea of mud and rocks. With a lot of effort, we made a pleasant yard. When the housing bubble burst, many of the people on my side of the street lost their jobs, and their homes went into foreclosure.

For several years, wherever there were two or more empty houses, it looked somewhat like a ghost town. Also, there was a long period when our house was valued at far less than we paid for it, which meant that had we wanted to, we couldn’t sell it.

My town has one grocery store, which carries the basics, but their produce is awful, and you really have to check the pull dates on things like eggs, hummus, and cottage cheese. It’s more affordable to shop in Olympia.

We have a historic district, where the buildings are all built from sandstone quarried at the old quarries. Many of the old buildings are home to antique stores. The masonic lodge is made of Tenino sandstone.

The city park is a pleasant place to go on a hot Saturday afternoon, with a large public swimming pool in one of the flooded quarries.

It’s a nice place, a quiet town with several large Baptist churches, a Catholic church, and a large number of small off-shoot fundamentalist churches. Alas, those of us of the Lutheran persuasion must go to Olympia to find God.

In the morning, birdsong fills the air. Robins, wrens, finches, hummingbirds, crows, Stellar’s jays, mourning doves – the neighborhood is alive with birds.

Odors are important. The meat department at the grocery store smokes their own ribs and other cuts, and the wind carries the scent all over the neighborhood. When they mow the fields at the edge of our town the smell of cut hay fills the air.

During the day when I go outside, I can hear the children playing at the school. In the evening, the neighborhood is filled with the sounds of kids playing in each other’s yards.

Other familiar sounds are the traffic on Highway 507, and the horns sounding from the trains passing at the west end of town. Annoyingly, helicopters from the nearby military base sometimes buzz our town—flying low over our roofs, shaking the houses, rattling dishes in the cupboards.

It’s the perfect setting for a paranormal fantasy or a murder mystery.

Your characters subtly identify with the community they live in. Small town or large city, village or hut in the forest – where they are from shapes how they think, how they see the world. This is true of fantasy and sci-fi stories as well as murder mysteries and thrillers.

Visualize your own community and write a word picture of it. Then visualize the community your characters live in and write a word picture of this imaginary place.

Ambient sounds, odors, places the characters regularly frequent—these form the general environment, the setting of your story. This is the immediate world, the world of community.


Credits and Attributions

Photos and images in this post are from the authors personal collection © Connie Jasperson 2019

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