All Writers Engage in World-building

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?

Natural Light as Inspiration for Your Writing

Since I was in high school, I’ve found inspiration in how natural light plays across landscapes, whether it’s sunlight or moonlight. When the light catches my attention, I imagine what kind of a scene I could set in it. I’ve incorporated this sensitivity to natural light in Rae Riley, the main character of my short story “A Rose from the Ashes”, and my WIP, A Shadow on the Snow. Rae is an amateur photographer, so I can work in descriptions of natural light works in a way that is believable for my character.

Below are list of ways you can use natural light as inspiration for your writing.

Golden summer evening

Everyone has experienced how wonderfully relaxing a summer evening bathed in golden light is. It seems like the perfect setting for a low-key conclusion to a story. That’s the setting for the last chapter of my first novel. Since I doubt that novel will ever see the light of print, I’m hoping to find a way to recycle this setting in another story.

Bright sunrise

This kind of sunrise seems like a good setting for an upbeat ending to a story. It also makes a powerful contrast if most of you story has taken place at night, especially if the action has been harrowing for the characters. I’m a sucker for stories that take place during the course of one night. A glorious sunrise may be the best way to end it.

Cloudy sunrise

If the day doesn’t start bright, it seems to be a harbinger for a bad day. A cloudy sunrise could kick off a story, foretelling that things won’t go well for the main characters that day.

Bright, clear day

My mood almost always lifts when the humidity is so low that sky is clear of clouds and at its most brilliant blue. It seems like a day overflowing with possibilities. A great way to start an adventure. Or I can use the day as a counterpoint. My main character wants to get out into the gorgeous day and is trapped inside with work or some other obnoxious duty. My plot could be about how she schemes to escape into the beautiful day.

Weird light

Unusual weather circumstances can affect the light strangely. One spring morning when my kids were small, I woke up after my husband had already gone to work. The blinds were drawn in my bedroom, so my first view of the day was when I stepped into my living room. I saw the morning sky was yellow. My first thought: TORNDADO! Immediately, I turned on the TV and found out that severe weather was passing. I can’t remember if the storms produced tornadoes but we didn’t experience anything more than normal thunderstorms.

Unusual weather like the yellow sky calls for dramatic action. My main character could be struggling toward a goal and a storm can be an obstacle or the symbol of obstacles he must over come. Or it could be the backdrop for the ultimate clash between two strong-willed characters.

Another unusual condition of natural light is during a sunset when most of the sky is covered with clouds but there’s a break just above the horizon. When the sun reaches this clear strip of sky, the light seems to get funneled between the clouds and land, creating searing light and deep shadows.

Such harsh light seems appropriate for a climax in which the characters learns the ultimate truth about themselves or the situation they’ve been living in.

Click hear for my post on how to use moonlight on a full moon night to inspire your settings.

How would you use natural light as inspiration for your writing?

29 Unique Settings to Spark Your Imagination

As we round up this month of setting tips and inspiration, I wanted to leave you with a list of settings you may not have considered before. My kids and I brainstormed and compiled these 29 unique settings to spark your imagination.

  • Inside a termite mound in Africa
  • A strip mine
  • A sinkhole
  • A sledding hill
  • Marching band practice
  • A 4-H meeting
  • A demolition derby
  • A space station
  • Jupiter’s smallest moon
  • A flooded cave
  • A fire tower
  • A sewer
  • An orthodontist office
  • Antarctic research station
  • A blimp
  • The top of a dam to a lake in a state park
  • A church during vacation Bible school
  • A car stuck on a road that is closed due to a snowstorm
  • An alpaca farm
  • A small, older home next to a new development with huge, new homes
  • A fishing tournament
  • A science fair
  • A prairie dog town
  • A rest stop along a highway
  • An electric company’s substation
  • A catamaran
  • An abandoned railroad line
  • An outdoor art festival
  • An open mausoleum — This one needs a word of explanation. My oldest and I took a history walk with a librarian at a local cemetery. Her research had uncovered records of three mausoleums built into the hill below the cemetery. The one closest to the road had fallen into such disrepair that the doors had opened. The county had bulldozed a mound of earth in front of it to keep out vandals. The other two mausoleums were lost in the woods that had overgrown the hill. Being curious, I returned to the cemetery and found the other two among the weeds and trees. They were both open, doors having come loose and hanging crooked. But I didn’t get too close. It seemed disrespectful to do so. But I really want to use this scenario in a mystery.

For more inspiration, visit my post “How to Thicken Your Plot, Part II” about how to examine settings to generate ideas for plot. All my posts under the category “Writing in Time” are listed here.

And last but not least, this post on “Almost an Author” recommends changing the setting in which you write to give you a fresh perspective as well as ideas.

What other unique settings can you think of? If any setting from our list inspires you, let me know!

Setting Sets the Mood

Setting sets the mood in a story just as efficiently and vividly as character. If I combine the two components, not only do I set the mood, I am well on my way to hooking readers’ attention and immersing them in my story.

Below are three examples of how descriptions of setting in the opening paragraphs establish mood and the personality of the main character.

“The Cloak” by Robert Bloch

The author sets the mood right away for this Halloween story. “The sun was dying, and its blood spattered the sky as it crept into a sepulchre behind the hills.” These are the thoughts of Henderson, who is looking for a costume shop in 1930’s New York City. He scolds himself for his flight of fancy and then describes the sunset as just “dingy red”.

Henderson likes the idea of all the ancient terror Halloween evokes but still wants to be a rational, twentieth century American. The short story combines and clashes the age-old legends of vampires with a high society costume party. In four short paragraphs, Mr. Bloch has established the setting, the mood of the story and the character, and a great amount of tension.

“The Crime Wave at Blandings” by P.G. Wodehouse

“The day on which lawlessness reared its ugly head at Blandings Castle was one of singular beauty”. In the first paragraph, Mr. Wodehouse goes on to describe a fine summer day in England. The second paragraph completely changes course by discussing how fans of thrillers don’t want pretty descriptions. They want the who, what, where, when, why, and how of the crime, and the author had better get on with it.

Mr. Wodehouse has created not just the image of a tranquil summer day but the breezey tone for a comic story about members of an earl’s household taking potshots at an annoying guest with an air gun. The description lets readers know exactly what kind of story they’ve settled down to read, and the author doesn’t disappoint.

“A Rose from the Ashes” by JPC Allen

I wanted my first scene to establish a lonely, eerie mood for my YA Christmas mystery. My main character Rae is a amateur photographer. This influences how she sees the world. When describing the sunset on a December evening, she thinks about how “gashes of blood-red light seeped through the clotted clouds, creating an ominous background for the gray, stone building that was rumored to be the scene of a murder.”

To emphasize the loneliness of the place, as well as the Rae’s loneliness, I use “a few caws from crows and sighs as the wind sailed through empty window frames.” I’m making my setting work hard, providing a background for the action, developing my main character’s personality, and creating symbols to represent my character’s feelings.

At the end of the story, I wanted to let readers know something unusual is going to happen. Rae is back at the “gray, stone building,” which is an abandoned children’s home, on Christmas Eve. The moon is almost full on a frigid, clear night and brings “an otherworldly silver sheen, like the home and all the land outside was bathed in a fairy spell.” Rae is hoping she will find her father, and he will accept her. The otherworldly light represents the main character’s hope and foreshadows the plot twists.

A Word About Symbolism

In Description and Setting by Ron Rozelle, he recommends not consciously working in symbolism. If you do, the symbolism will seem obvious and heavy-handed to readers. So how do you include symbolism if you can’t do it consciously? Mr. Rozelle says to write your story the best you can, and then when you review it, you may find that settings or characters or objects have naturally become symbols.

That happened in my story, but I didn’t realize until I was helping my oldest child with an extremely tough question for a language arts assignment. He had to find passages in a story that showed a change in a character through a change in how he or she viewed a setting. We were both stumped. Then I remembered my short story, which had just been published. How Rae views the abandoned children’s home reflects her feelings at the time, at first lonely, then hopeful.

I was surprised I’d included symbolism in my story. And happy that I helped my oldest complete his homework.

What stories have you read in which the setting sets the mood particularly well?

Setting Fuels Character, Character Fuels Setting

Writers often offer advice on plot, setting, and character as if they were distinct story devices that barely had any association with each other until a writer pulls them into a story. But those three components are all interwoven. Since my theme this month is setting, this post will focus on how setting fuels characters and character fuels setting. If some plot creeps into the article, I can’t help it. Plot, setting, and character are a tight knit family, and I never know when one will come barging in to hang out with the other two.

In real life, environments shape the people who live in them. I’ve lived in a rural county in Ohio for the past fourteen years. I see the world differently from my sisters, although we all grew up in the same small town. They have spent the past several years living in suburbs that are less than an hour’s drive from me. Our homes, and the events that have occurred in them, influence who we are

Pick a setting, any setting

Let’s say I want to write a mystery set on the coast of North Carolina, near Emerald Isle. If my characters have lived by the sea all their lives, that environment will fuel their development. If a man is a fisherman, he can realistically be hard-working and stoic because he learned he must work with the sea when it turns nasty on him. Or he could be hard-working and laid back, having learned he can’t control the ocean but must roll with the punches it metes out.

Emerald Isle is a huge vacation destination. I can believably add characters who are not from that area. Fish-out-of-water stories are a lot of fun as characters clash in a setting familiar to some and alien to others.

In my North Carolina mystery, the fisherman takes several city dudes on a chartered fishing trip. One of the dudes is very snobbish. Another is very competitive. Maybe a powerful entrepreneur or rising politician. A third is new to fishing and very excited about his first ocean fishing trip. One of the vacationers dies on the boat under mysterious circumstances.

When the police suspect the fisherman, he and several other charter boat captains play amateur detectives because they don’t want an unsolved murder to adversely affect their businesses. So careful thought about my setting has let the setting fuel character and characters fuel setting.

In my Work-In-Progress (WIP), my main character Rae is trying to fit into a rural county in Ohio as she gets to know her father and his family for the first time. She grew up in the South, moving many times with her mother before she died. Rae is used to small town living but has never had a chance to put down roots.

Rae is an introvert and shy. She would like to make friends but feels she isn’t good at it because she could never make lasting friends anywhere she and her mother lived. The frequent changes in her environment fuel her personality.

What stories do you know in which setting fuels character and character fuels setting?

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