Tuesday, August 3, 2010

World Building for non scifi/fantasy writers

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog about the wonderful World Building for YA seminar given by the amazing Shelley Bates that I attended as part of my MFA residency program. Many of you have asked for more information about world building as we all sort of assumed that was a term for science fiction or fantasy writers. Let's face it there are a lot of witches, vampires, werewolves and zombies out there right now, but what if you were writing a contemporary story set in small town Kansas. Do you need world building? The answer to that is yes.
Here's why:
Many readers, lets face it most of your readers including your agent and editor, have never lived in a small town in Kansas. They have no clue what people dress like, talk like (Trust me, I've gotten more question marks from my editor on common Midwest sayings in my writing then I ever imagined.) and how their values and points of view are different than say someone from New York City. I imagine the same thing is true if you are writing a book set in Los Angeles or New York or Seattle. You have to understand that more than half your readers may have never been there and so you need to build a world around your characters that gives the reader a solid sense of time, place and rules of action and behavior.
Where do you start? In the ordinary world-what is their life like? The protag has learned to navigate their world and as a writer you should think about what this reveals about the character-what strengths and what weaknesses. Establish a social order- things are very different on a working ranch versus a highrise office job. A trip to work might entail a beat up Chevy truck or a commuter train; endless expanse of rolling plains or elbowed standing room only space on a bus.
Shelley taught us to create the world by working down, working out and working in. Ask yourself what is the dominate element in the setting? Let's say the windswept prairie to show vast expanse, the smallness of humans, the struggle between nature and man-as you write, you narrow your focus from the prairie to the protag. This is working down. Then you show the story from the character's point of view-let's say your character lives on an old ranch and works in a donut shop in a small town. She drives to work at 4 a.m. in her beat up Chevy. The road is bumpy and rugged and dark. There might be cracks in the dash from years of hot sun coming in the window. The material on the roof might sag. There could be an old empty gun rack in the back. The radio plays the stock report or weather forecast or country songs. It goes in and out as she drives through small valleys. A coyote crosses her path, she swerves and ends up in the ditch. Now she's late, maybe it's her last chance to keep her job. It's a half mile hike to the closest house and a five mile hike into town. She gets out, kicks the car in frustration, and heads out thankful that she's wearing white nurses shoes that are made for standing for long periods and walking for hours. It smells of night and dew and rain coming. Robins sing cheerfully worsening her mood because the next house over belongs to old man Simmons and he has no patience for stupid drivers and more importantly white trash Paisely women. Sue Paisely knows that her family has never been good enough, not since her great great grandpa refused to be run off when the oil and cattle barons were buying up or stealing all the land they could get their hands on.
Finally, Shelley said that your character's knowledge-such as Sue's knowledge about her family and how the town thinks of her is building the world from within. Her actions and reactions help to build and change the world she's in. Will she knock on the old man's door or walk the five miles into town?
World building is done with details great and small, but most importantly not all at once. If you add them all at once you are what we call, data dumping, or showing the reader how much research you did. World building is an art form of its own. I hope these small tips can get you started. Most importantly stick to the rules of your world. If the town sees her one way not much will change that-what will change is how the character feels about it. Remember Harry Potter didn't return to his Aunt's house a hero, but he returned with internal knowledge that there was more to life then his Aunt's small minded views.
Questions? Please let me know and I'll be happy to explain. Cheers~


Judy Croome said...

Excellent post Nancy. I never thought of descriptive writing in contemporary novels as a form of world building in itself. Something good to remember!

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

I got so caught up in your example, Nancy, that I really want to know - does she walk or knock on the door?

These world building tips make such good sense – I hope to apply them more skillfully in my current WIP.

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi Judy, thanks. World building is a way of bringing the setting to life.
Thanks for stopping by. Cheers~

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi Jane, thanks.
When I ended the blog I was thinking, huh, now I need to write Sue's story. :D


Jessica Nelson said...

Working in, out, around...that's a great, quick way to remember this. Thanks!

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi Jessica,

Thanks for stopping by! Cheers~

Linda Kage said...

You describe this wonderfully and give perfect, easy to understand examples. Thanks so much. I felt like I was watching a movie, zooming into the scene for a close-up and them coming back out to capture the entire atmosphere.

Very helpful.

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi Linda,
Thanks! and thanks for stopping by. Yay for your new release this week-The Trouble with Tomboys- The wild Rose Press. Cheers~

Stephen Tremp said...

Word building skills are always important, whether we feel like doing them or not. That's why I rely on my blogging buddies to keep the gerbil in my head running inside its wheel.

Stephen Tremp