Friday, 21 July 2017

Creative Pulse - Week 4 - World-building

By Alison Morton
Images by JD Lewis 

Setting is vital to a story whether it’s in the background or an integral part of the narrative. But I want to take you further and deeper than mere location into building a whole world for your story – 3D instead of 2D. And it applies whether you are writing supermarket romances, terrifying thrillers or intense historicals.

If you set your story in a different country, you can visit the places the characters live in, smell the sea, touch the plants, walk under the hot blue sky or freeze in a biting wind. If nearer home, you will be familiar with much of your book’s world.

If you invent a country or a past or future time, you have to get your imagination going hand in hand with research. We’re creative beings, we’ve imagined alternative realities since we were children and that’s what will drive your world building.

But you have to be practical as well, and believe me, fans will expect you to know everything from costume, social philosophy and weapons to food, transport and childcare provision. (Yes, I was asked that at the launch of my second book.)

No country can survive without a functioning government, an economic, social and political system, food, law and order and income. You don’t need to mention any of these, unless it impacts on the plot, but you should have it all worked out in your head, notebook, file on your hard disk or in the cloud. 

Some questions to ask yourself

How do people make their living? How are they educated? What kind of industry is there? What is the food like? Are there markets, little shops, big chains? What does the money look like? Is the government representative? Are laws authoritarian or permissive? Who holds the power?

Consider what your book’s world looks like. If it’s a country we already know, has transport developed beyond the horse and cart to steam trains, electric trains or crammed motorways in your story’s time? Is it safe to travel from one town to another? And remember landscapes familiar in the 21st century looked a great deal different in the eleventh.

If it’s an imaginary country, are there mountains, seas and rivers? What’s growing in the fields, does the countryside consist of plains, valleys or desert?

You may like to draw a map, however crude, just to keep track of where you’re sending your characters. And spare a few moments for the climate. You can’t have grapes and thus wine without some rain and a lot of sunshine…

Practical tips to engage readers

· Anchors and links to ‘normal’ e.g. a cop is always a cop wearing a uniform and an attitude, a tired working mother is exhausted whether she’s on Mars, in Ancient Rome or Tunbridge Wells

· Juxtaposition: reinforce a setting or details of your world through a character’s eyes when she sees and reacts to something that diverges from ordinary life in your potential reader’s location and time

· Drip-drip: local colour or period detail is essential, but only where necessary and when relevant. 90% of your research does not belong in your narrative.

· Names, everyday words and slang: Make them appropriate to the setting but keep them simple, so they don’t jolt the reader out of the story.

Characters in setting

Character-based stories are popular and readers are intrigued by what happens to individual people living in different environments. Three key points that apply to building a book’s world:

· Characters have to act, think and feel like real people whatever language they speak or however they’re dressed

· Characters should live naturally within their world in their ‘now’, i.e. consistently reflecting their unique environment and the prevailing social attitudes.

· The permissions and constraints of their world should make additional trouble and conflict for them.

Go visible

Build a file of images of real environments similar to your book’s world. It’s an immensely useful way of re-immersing yourself into I when stuck. Obviously, an imagined country is hard to photograph. If you can draw, then you have the tools at your fingertips, but if like me your artistic skills are limited to turning out sketches of pin-men, then it’s back to the camera.

An imagination exercise

Close your eyes and walk your character through a street in your book’s world. What do they see, touch and smell? Is the place crowded, noisy? Are there stalls or shops, are people on foot, horseback or in cars? Is it deserted, eerie or threatening? What is your character feeling as they walk along? Anticipation, fear, excitement, cynicism, pleasure?

Happy writing!

Alison Morton writes the award-winning Roma Nova thriller series featuring modern Praetorian heroines. 
She puts this down to her deep love of Roman history, six years’ military service, an MA in history and an over-vivid imagination. 
 She blogs, tweets, reads, cultivates a Roman herb garden and drinks wine in France with her husband of 30 years.

Next week: Sensory storytelling with Bernice Rocque

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