CONFESSIONS OF A BOOK GEEK: World-Building Is More Than a Hobby

Yes, I am a book geek.  A certified research nerd, known to haunt the stacks in search of that one footnote in the back of a book on ancient Egypt that makes obscure reference to a rumored religious practice or bizarre habit of some pharaoh or other that can then get turned into the entire basis for a work of fiction. 🙂

I’m proud of my ability to ferret out entirely useless trivia, because to me, it’s the Mother Lode, to be mined for true fictional gold.  I’ve based entire worlds around one seemingly-useless piece of information, before.

But world-building isn’t just a hobby.  I believe it’s something essential to every fiction writer’s arsenal, whether you’re writing in the “real world” or in a world you’ve created completely on paper.  It’s not something to be taken lightly, or shrugged off (just ask George Lucas – the flack he’s gotten for the inconsistencies between the original Star Wars releases and the 3 “prequel” movies should be a huge, neon red flag to any writer!)

“But, Esther, I only write CONTEMPORARY fiction!”  I hear you yelling through the monitor.

And, what?  You think that excuses you from the exercise of world-building?  Consider this:

Are you using an established town/city?  Or are you creating your own fictional town somewhere in a real country?

We’ll run both, in two different hypotheticals. For today, let’s deal with the first hypothetical… It’s going to take a while… 🙂

Hypothetical Setting A – Established town/city:

For example, let’s say your story is set in modern-day Chicago.  Here are questions to ask yourself before you even begin:

1.  Do you live in Chicago? (If yes, get your jacket and walking shoes ready, because you’re going to be hitting the streets in short order.  If no, you’ve got a LOT more work to do…)

2.  If you answered yes to #1, before you begin writing, you need to decide what landmarks you want to use, and then you’re going to take a tour.  Walk and drive the route your characters are going to take several times over the course of a week.  What’s traffic like, at different times?  Are there any interesting people who you see regularly along the streets?  What about landmarks along the route? You’re going to need a map and a pen, to jot down notes and impressions about certain locations.  You’re going to want your characters to have similar experiences.

3.  If you DON’T live in Chicago, have you ever visited the city?  If yes, you need to figure out if you have any photos of the locations you want to use, and you’re going to either have to study a map and  try to remember sights, sounds, and impressions, or you might want to plan another trip.  If no, you have two choices – If you can afford it (I know it’s difficult.  I have problems with this very issue), take a trip there.  Nothing beats a first-hand impression.  If you can’t afford the trip, it’s time to hit the stacks.  You’re looking for the MOST CURRENT information available.  Check out websites for Chicago, look at maps (Google Maps is good, because they’ll give you a street-level view of an area, which is an invaluable world-building resource for contemporary fiction authors), haunt your local library or bookstore for books on the locations you want to use.  Network, and try to find people who live there and might be willing to talk about their favorite places to go, what traffic’s like, what the weather’s like, etc.

4.  Now that you’ve done the first part of your research (tired, yet? ;)..), it’s time to start putting it together.  Set your locations, and the routes your characters typically take between them.  Also plan a couple of alternate routes, in case you need them for any reason.  As you put together these pieces of location information, you’ll probably encounter even more things you need to know, more details you’re missing.  Any time you run into these questions, go back to your sources (I keep a file on my computer that has nothing but the logs of what books, periodicals, websites, and people I use as sources for a contemporary novel).

And don’t think that a particular genre of fiction excludes you from this research.  I’ve seen authors in some genres try to shortcut the research and world-building phase because they think it doesn’t apply to them.  Believe me, the readers can tell the difference! 🙂

That’s all for now.  Later, we’ll deal with building a world from literally the ground, up (as found in most Fantasy and some Science Fiction).

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