World-building. Again.

From Mederndepe on Flickr, under creative commons license.
From Mederndepe on Flickr, under creative commons license.

Last weekend, I was at Manifold Press’s “Queer Company” meeting in Oxford, a gathering of (mainly) UK based writers and readers. For my sins, the lovely Elin Gregory and Sandra Lindsey pulled me into doing a panel about, essentially, world-building.

We focused it around “sense of place”. How does an author create the look, sound, taste and feel of the place in which their MC is playing out his or her story, make it authentic and pull the reader in so they almost feel they’re there too? How do we make the reader *believe* in the world created, rather than merely suspend their disbelief? By following the advice of the great Tolkien in On Fairy-Stories, of course, where he says that in order for the narrative to work, the reader must believe that what they read is true within the ‘secondary reality of the fictional world’. Create an internally consistent fictional world and belief is possible.

Both Sandra and Elin write historical fiction, so I left it to them to talk about how to create a believable, realistic historical (and contemporary) setting. My only contribution to that is, of course, The Gilded Scarab, my steampunk romance set in an alternate version of London powered by phlogiston and luminiferous aether. But even there, I worked hard to get a sense of the real London’s time and place: the buildings and streets are London’s buildings and streets (see Rafe Lancaster’s Londinium here), real people such as gunsmith Athol Purdey make brief appearances, even the racehorses mentioned actually ran at racecourses in 1900.

My main focus was on worlds a writer creates themselves. I love writing science fiction. Love it. oh! The freedom! The worlds, the culture and society, the government, the geography and the weather are all entirely up to me. I can make this shit up. And equally liberating: I can twist the details to suit the story. I’ve used this example before, but really how delightful is it that I can write nonsense like this in my background notes:
On the ground, a Shield warrior has his or her Shield suit: close-fitting, black, heat reflecting material threaded through with wiring (masking circuitry) powered by a flat battery pack across the shoulders and upper back. It produces a form of interferomatic dispersion that modulates to scatter radar and infra red/ultra violet sensors – a  layer of energy distortion creating a refractive, reflective shield (in a play on the Regiment’s name).

It sounds scientific enough, doesn’t it? Sci-fi-ish. It has a basis in fact. In my research for Shield, I came across something called ‘interferometry’ (the technique of combining and superimposing electromagnetic waves to study displacements, refractive index changes and surface irregularities). Total lightbulb moment. Obviously I’d have to twist it and warp it, but as a scientific basis for a protective suit, it passed my sniff test. All right, I have a dreadful sense of smell and a real scientist would die laughing if they read that paragraph, but a little bit of me is with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle here: “It has always seemed to me that so long as you produce your dramatic effect, accuracy of detail matters little. I have never striven for it and I have made some bad mistakes in consequence. What matter if I hold my readers?

I’m not saying he’s entirely right. But in the sense in which he is right, is that what matters is the story. I’m not writing a treatise on interferometry. I’m writing a science fiction yarn. If I end up bending those electromagnetic waves a little too far to the left to please the scientists, but the reader just thinks “Cool suit!”, then job done. An element of my created, imaginary place feels true and internally consistent, and helps the reader believe in it.

From Flebilis Rosa, Flickr, under creative commons

So… take something that matters to your story – history, geography, languages, religions, economy; weather, societies, people, flora and fauna, power sources, industries, what people farm and what they eat and drink – and then decide how it all works in your world. Then take the next issue, rinse and repeat until you have a good understanding of what your imaginary world is like. And if you’re anything like me, you have a folder six inches deep.

Is it important? Yup. Where you set your story, will have a profound impact on the characters you’re writing about. It will shape what they do and even what language they (and you) will be using – everything from oaths to proverbs. Places shape people. Never forget that. Even if your story is set in 2016 London, don’t forget that. You still have some world-building to do. No one ever escapes unscathed!

How do you do it? Not through huge paragraphs of exposition and explanation. You weave it into your narrative so the reader barely notices it, bleed it into your descriptions of place, your character’s behaviour and speech, and into your plot.

The key question to ask yourself is what your PoV character knows. In Gilded Scarab, I don’t draw attention to the steampunky bits because to my narrator, Rafe, these things are so much part of the background to his life, they’re as unremarkable as  breathing.  They’re just there. In the background. Unremarkable to him as a character, so unremarkable to him as narrator.

Let’s take a more real world example.

I’ll bet you drive a car. Without looking at Google, can you explain step by every little step

From Clark at Flickr under creative commons
From Clark at Flickr under creative commons

how the internal combustion engine works? So why would you expect your PoV character to know this level of detail? You put in what’s relevant to your characters and his story. If you’re that desperate to share the details, create annexes in your book or information pages on your website. Geeks will love you for it, but the reader will also love not having to slog through pages of techy stuff that gets in the way of the storytelling.

It’s all about balance, see? Blending your imagination with all that stuff you’ve collected together, and seeding those details through your narrative so quietly and seamlessly your reader just sees the whole, complete world – your secondary reality with all its wonderful, consistent detail – and never has to worry about the plumbing, say, because you’ve done it for them.

They can just sit back and believe.

metallic spaceship200

With love and thanks to all at Manifold Press, for giving me the opportunity to waffle on, and being too polite to tell me to shut up. Because believe me, I was nowhere near this coherent on the day!


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