The more I study the craft of writing, the more I understand that all writers engage in world-building. It’s obvious that speculative fiction writers build fantasy worlds, but anytime a writer tries to make real a world the reader is unfamiliar with, she is engaged in world-building, either making the unbelievable believable or the unfamiliar familiar.
Making the Unfamiliar Familiar
Outside of speculate fiction, most writers come under the heading above, even nonfiction ones. In The Guns of August, author Barbara W. Tuchman writes about the events of the summer of 1914 that led to the beginning of World War I.
One scene stands out in my mind is The Ride of the Kings. All of European royalty turned out for the funeral of Edward VII of England in 1910. Nine kings rode with Edward’s surviving brother in the funeral procession. It was one of the last gestures of old-fashioned pageantry before the European countries turned on in each other in war. Ms. Tuchman writes this scenes so vividly that I feel like I was a bystander at the procession. To me, that’s world-building.
As a mystery writer, I find many aspects of my story come under world- building. My short story, “A Rose from the Ashes”, and my work-in-progress, A Shadow on the Snow both take place in a rural county in Ohio. For someone who grew up in a city outside of America, or even inside it, such a setting may seem as strange as a moonbase. It’s my job to describe the setting and the characters who live there in such ways to make them both relatable and unique. I want to find the common threads that all humans can relate to while also highlighting unique features of the place, such as the weather or history.
Another aspect of my stories is law enforcement. Several of my characters are deputies and one is a sheriff. I need to write so that those unfamiliar with this kind of work can live it with the characters. I’ve done a lot of research on such things as how long is shift, do rural cops ever work a shift without back up, and can deputies grow moustaches. I didn’t want to describe a character who is a deputy and give him the mannerism of smoothing his moustache if they aren’t allowed to wear one in Ohio. Little breaks from reality like that make my stories just a little less believable.
If you’re a writer, what kind of world-building do you engage in? If you’re a reader, what story has the most believable world-building?
I have long been amazed by the world-building of JK Rowling. I don’t know if that’s a boring answer, but I truly believe the world she created is amazing in its detail and depth. Yes, there are “imperfections” in her world, as in I sometimes think that such-and-such shouldn’t have been allowed to happen if she was following all of her own “rules” but I still think she did an amazing job of inventing a whole new world.
Your title is right on. It took me quite a while to realize that all stories need world building. I had thought it was just the speculative fiction, and that I could put in some brief descriptions of my world and be done. I’ve since learned that’s not the case. Good post. I wish I had read it a couple years ago, but I guess this journey is a constant learning process.