Monday, November 09, 2009

Playing God: World Building & the Writer

As writers, an enormous weight is on us to creatively build a world our readers can believe in. It doesn't matter whether it's the town you live in now, a futuristic alien world, on 1920s Chicago, our responsibility is to convey what surrounds our characters and how it affects them.

Personally, I've always found description a difficult thing. I don't like it, so I tend to be a minimalist. However, when I picked up a book not too long ago that took place in MY town (Kansas City), I was almost as interested to read the book for the plot as I was to see how the author (a fellow Kansas Citian) described our fair metropolitan sprawl. This sudden awareness of setting has made me a bit more open to the fact that I need to be more conscious of the world building aspects in my own novels.

While most of my writings have been present day stories set in my own town or region, my recent foray into the world of science fiction has definitely made me aware that there's more to world building than meets the eye. All of a sudden, I'm having to think what life will be like in the 22nd Century--not just hovercraft and other technology, but the political structure of the world, relations between people, slang that could be used, the types of medical procedures that may be done, all kinds of things I wouldn't have thought about otherwise. I can see, too, that the same would be the case in reverse if I were to be writing a historical novel.

Since working on 'Cora's Song', I've come up with some thoughts to help you as a writer more succinctly build your own world--even if it's a place you live right now.

  • Remember all the senses: Smell, Sight, Touch, Taste, Auditory. Don't lack in any of them to help give your reader a better sense of the world they find themselves in.
  • Consider how the climate may be different. If you're dealing with semi-recent history (post 1880s) try to check climatological data to backup the weather your characters experience. If writing in the future, did Al Gore's theory of global 'climate change' really occur, or was it just a bunch of hogwash?
  • Describe how to do something foreign to the reader. Perhaps they've never cleaned a Revolutionary War-era musket. If it's in the future, if teleportation is a viable option, how does that feel to your character?
  • How have laws changed? For the better? For the worse? What makes them different in your story than they are today?
  • What's different about medical technology?
  • How about male/female relations? Race relations?
  • Religion and religious practices.
  • How materials are used. Do the people recycle everything? Are there ways to utilize what we'd now consider trash in the future? In the past, how did people dispose of trash (or WAS there a lot of trash?)
  • Food and drink differences.
  • Fashion.
  • Transportation.
  • Entertainment.
  • Living arrangements.
I'm sure you get the idea. Before I started working on my sci-fi project, I never knew there could be so many possibilities for coming up with things to fill my world! Now moving into the editing process after a few month hiatus, I'm sure I'll be coming up with ways to describe things to my readers in an effective way. I just hope I can make it pop as well as describing Kansas City to someone who's never been here.

Additional reading:

Good Writers are So Lazy...
Details: Bringing Fiction to Life
Color Me Vivid

Until next time,

P.S., You may remember in one of my last posts, I mentioned I was considering participating in NaNoWriMo. Well, I did decide to join up, and you can track my progress in the column on the left side of the screen! I got a bit behind due to having a virus and being in bed for 2 days (with my brain completely fogged over) but I'm way ahead of the curve still. My project, tentatively titled 'Beyond Dead', is really coming along. If you'd like to read a brief synopsis and excerpt, go to my profile at and select the 'Novel Info' tab. I'm very excited about this project and where it's taking me! Thanks, L.S.


Lorrie said...

Great tips Liberty. I enjoy your blog very much. Blessings on your Nano project :)

Liberty Speidel said...

Thanks for stopping in, Lorrie, and for the kind words!

Lorna G. Poston said...

Great tips, Liberty. Excellent reminders.

Liberty Speidel said...

:) I'll probably be coming back to look at my own advice when I begin revisions on 'Cora's Song' and 'Beyond Dead' (my NaNo project.)

Elspeth Antonelli said...

Best of luck with Nano and I hope your virus has gone away. I try to remember to include all the senses when I'm writing; different characters are aware of different things.


K.M. Weiland said...

Excellent list. When I was working on my fantasy Dreamers Come, I stumbled across this fantastic list of world-building questions. You might find it helpful in your spec fic.

lynnmosher said...

Great post, Liberty! Full of wonderful tips. Good luck with NaNO!

Liberty Speidel said...

Thanks, Elspeth, Katie, & Lynn! And, thanks for the link, Katie. I'm going to have to check it out, maybe even add it to my resources column. :)

Elspeth, early on in my writing endeavors, I remember hearing an author speak and she said to try to use all 5 senses, especially since 2 don't get used as much: taste and touch. I want to say she stole that from Nancy Pickard, who started my local Sisters in Crime group. :)

Victor Travison said...

Great advice. Since I write science fiction on a regular basis, I've practiced most of what you said here already. Recently I started to add smells to my descriptions, since for some reason I've been leaving that sense out.

Glad you're getting over your virus, Liberty. Good thing you were way ahead in Nano when it struck, so it should be no problem getting back into the swing. See you at the finish line!

~ VT

Liberty Speidel said...

Thanks, Victor!

Jody Hedlund said...

Hope NaNo is going well for you! Thanks for those great tips on setting details!

Liberty Speidel said...

You're most welcome--hope you find them helpful!

T. Anne said...

I love your tips! I'm going to jot them down as I edit my novels. I really needed a good list of things to add to make the work realistic. Just found you and I'm glad I did!

Liberty Speidel said...

Well, thank you for the kind words, Anne! I'm glad you found my suggestions helpful!

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