“You’re building a WHAT?”
“The whole THING?”
That’s where the next response will be different for each writer. Yes, some of us do build an entire world for our stories. No, some of us don’t.
But regardless of how detailed or how sketchy it might be, we can never write a story without creating SOME kind of world.
It might be as simple as a few lines about the setting. “Twelfth-century France, on the way to the Third Crusade.”
“A doughnut shop on Main Street where all the townspeople come to get their news.”
“The camp for women who served with Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War.”
Sometimes, that’s all the author—and the readers—need to envision where the book is set. For them, the world takes second place (or third, seventh or fifteenth place) to other aspects of the story ... like plot twists, character journeys, dramatic dialogue, emotional arcs, entertaining events and more.
Other times the world is an essential part of the book, without which the story would feel emptier. Lacking in richness. Imagine a Harry Potter story without Hogwarts Academy or an Eve Dallas story without the New York Police Department. Readers would feel cheated.
Series readers, especially, like seeing the touchstones they’ve come to expect in a particular story world. J.R. Ward, Susan Mallery, Robert B. Parker, J.R.R. Tolkien and dozens of other authors have created worlds that live far beyond the covers of each book in the series.
Other writers create a fresh world for every book, and their readers are perfectly satisfied with each new one they come across.
Obviously, it’s more than just the physical setting.
That doesn’t mean the place and time aren’t important. Where the characters are located, what surrounds the active area, what the weather is like, what hour of the day different scenes take place in, what seasonal events will affect the plot ... all of those matter to the story.
And that setting can be described in lavish detail or quick brushstrokes, whichever best suits the author’s voice.
There are times when it’s crucial for readers to have a solid grasp of the setting, like when clues are related to “the distance from the dock to the barn” or “whether sunset actually happened along the way home.”
There are also times when knowing details like the color of the heroine’s bedroom quilt and the sound of her clock gives the reader a welcome sense of being fully immersed in the story world.
Then there are times when such details diminish the reader’s interest, taking them away from character or plot elements and shifting the focus to things they view as immaterial.
Regardless of how extensively or briefly your physical setting is described, though, the time-and-place location plays a crucial role in making your story’s characters do what they do.
Taking real-life locations as an example. Nobody would expect the same response to news of a kidnapped child from someone living in present-day Jerusalem and from someone living in an Antarctic research station.
Likewise, the characters’ setting—whether or not it appears during story action—has already played a role in making your people who they are. If Elizabeth Bennet and Katniss Everdeen were faced with one another’s choices, we can figure each one would still value her beloved sister’s well- being above her own ... but what she’d do to preserve it would be completely different, based on the world she grew up in.
So whether or not the characters’ coming-of-age setting is included in your present-day story, it’s still going to affect what happens. Because it’s made them who they are, whether or not that’s something they embrace or want to change.
Just as characters are faced with the decision of whether they’re satisfied with who they are, or whether they need to alter it somehow, that same question can apply to the world that surrounds them.
In fact, it often provides the conflict that gets a story started. Someone who perceives injustice in the way feudal serfs are treated by the local barons, or someone who dreams of a more exciting life in the big city rather than on an isolated ranch, is someone with a story ready to happen.
Conflict doesn’t have to come because of dissatisfaction with their setting, though. It can also come from someone else who wants to change it.
Say, the new boss who decides to transfer everyone to the upgraded headquarters office two hours away. Or the character’s true love who plans to pursue a new opportunity on the frontier. Again, there’s a conflict waiting to unfold.
And that’s still only the beginning of how the story world plays into making your book memorable.
We’ll go into more detail on that from August 12-23 during “More Than Setting: World-Building” at WriterUniv.com, but meanwhile I’d love to know what story world comes to mind when you think about those you’ve enjoyed reading ... or writing.
Somebody who responds will win free registration to the class, and everybody who responds will give the rest of us great ideas for books we want to read or re-read. So that’s my question for you:
What story world did you love reading or writing?
I’ll check back for answers throughout the day and tomorrow and congratulate the winner of the registration for the free class on Saturday night. I’m looking forward to hearing about some fabulous story worlds!
A novelist who won “Best Special Edition of the Year” over Nora Roberts, Laurie Schnebly Campbell always has trouble choosing her favorite activity: writing, reading or teaching. Her newest course explores building story worlds, whether they’re a completely fictional creation or an actual setting the author knows well.
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I've gone back to my made-up town of Pine Hills Oregon after a long absence. As I wrote, I really, really wished I'd taken the time to create a series bible, but I thought 1) I'd remember and 2) I wasn't going to write any more books in this series. Wrong on both counts. And I wonder if I'd have made note of the things I've had to go back and look up. Where's the mayor's office? Municipal Building or City Hall? What floor is it on? What does the building look like? What does his office look like?
Terry, isn't that always the way?! It's hard to know when you start a story whether it'll wind up expanding into a series that NEEDS a bible, and doing all that work for what turns out to be a single-title feels wasteful. Same as when you buy a pair of shoes that become an all-time favorite and wonder why you didn't buy four more at the same time...but anyway, HURRAY that you're going back to Pine Hills!
Oh, Terry, I do this on every book! Not having that "bible" is such a time sump when I do revisions or write the next book in that world. And, like you, I thought, "How could I ever forget anything in 'that' book?" Ha!
And I'd like to personally apologize for the technical problems we had this morning getting everything to show up as we posted it from Laurie's flawless draft. The WordPress gremlins were out in full force, playing with the post pictures and links this morning, even though the post showed up in perfect form in the previews last night.
I created the fictional town of Loon Lake, Vermont for my Small-Town Sweethearts series for Harlequin Special Edition. It comes from childhood memories growing up in a small-town and from wishful thinking. I created a place that I would like to live in.
I recently received an email from someone who'd read the books that have been released and she said "...I want to stop by that small town in VT on my way through New England, and say, "Hi" and visit with the folks." For me, that was the ultimate compliment.
Carol, how lovely compliment that your reader completely bought into the world of Loon Lake! It's a storyteller's dream, knowing that people believe in a world that never existed until you picked up the pen. (Or, well, sat down at the keyboard.) Are you thinking it might be worth a drive to Vermont, just to see if maybe the town HAS materialized? 🙂
Hi Laurie. I’m in a world of trouble trying to choose a favourite. I devoured animal stories as a child - Black Beauty (the harsh world of London streets, contrasted by the warmth of a loving touch of kindness).
The Incredible Journey (wilderness and urban environments offer threat, adventure and comfort). Charlotte’s Web (where a simple farmyard became a stage for acts of greed, resourcefulness, and selflessness), and the entire Narnia Chronicles (through wartime Britain, a wardrobe, with a micro-climate and forests, castles, burrows and dens that give safety and challenges, suffering and sacrifice).
My childhood eyes have remained open to feel, explore and follow the raw heart and place of animal/human relationships through my own writing. Our story worlds affect hearts and minds, and so can change our world.
Jay, I love how all your favorite story worlds include animals -- they sure bring a dimension that you can't get with JUST humans. And it's such a treat for readers, discovering a writer who appreciates the same special dimensions they do...especially when they contain the kind of depth that all your childhood favorites do!
Hi Laurie, (waves from NS) I'm in the middle of creating a new fictional town where I'll not only base my contemporary romance series (working on the second book now) but also a cosy mystery series. I learned from past mistakes and am creating a series bible as I go. I even sketched out a map on a large sheet of paper and add streets, businesses, topographical elements as they appear in my stories. My fictional town is based on a combination of where I actually live and the next town over so inspiration is literally right around the corner, hehe.
Luanna, how handy that you've got your resources so close to home! And making it a combination of real towns is smart, because that way you can choose what you like and ignore what doesn't work from BOTH of 'em, with no townspeople offended that "she didn't get it right." Here's hoping the map will appear on your website one of these days...
Someone else's world? All right, let me recommend K.B. Wagers' Behind The Throne - a space opera full of politics and explosions, with a who's sort of a cross between Princess Leia and Han Solo. The world is the star-spanning Indranan Empire, a strong matriarchy with a lot of Hindu elements in the culture and religion; it's one of several empires, allied and competing. Read this one for the characters, the action, and the intigue -- but the world-building just hums along in the background, reminding you that this really isn't just Modern Society In Space and that things work differently here.
Of my own? Well, my favorite one is the setting for one of my Great Unfinished Projects. Magic works, if you speak its language; there are naturally-occurring (we think) portals to other worlds; there are dark, alien things that provide elements of cosmic horror; and the sky has an ecology as complex and busy as the land and sea.
But the one I'm currently playing with (in a series of short stories, because I don't seem to have time or focus for anything longer) is sort of post-High Fantasy. The Dark Lord has been destroyed, and his armies scattered, but the civilized races are only just starting to rebuild. Civilization has been reduced to a collection of small, scattered settlements and cities; there are ruins everywhere. Everybody is just sort of picking up the pieces, and in the middle of all this the last of the small band of heroes that defeated the Dark Lord is wandering around with a couple of magic swords and a bad case of survivor's guilt.
I feel like I should also say something about Tabletop Roleplaying Games (like Dungeons and Dragons), where you will frequently find that people have put an amazing amount of effort into world-building -- whole published books about these settings, with maps and politics and sketches of important people, sometimes even rumors and current events -- but left the actual story up to the people who will be creating characters to adventure in those worlds.
See, for example, Ordinary Towns or The Forgotten Realms.
Michael, if you ever wind up with an extra free seven hours each day, you need to start writing story worlds for tabletop games as well as all your own stories! I like your description of each one of those worlds, especially the ways in which they aren't QUITE like our own....
Michael, as a former "back room of the game store" D & D player, uh, decades ago, I know the time we could spend in our made-up worlds. Too bad there isn't time to write AND play those games. But Laurie's idea for turning your talents to the gaming world, might be something to look into!
I don't normally read paranormal but I'm a Nora Roberts fan and with the first lines of Book 1, I fell in love with her Cousin's O'Dwyer Trilogy. Much of the trilogy took place within the original heroine's Irish cottage. The setting - in and outside of it - was so vivid to me that I felt I could smell the herbs the heroine hung to dry, and hear the scrap of wood against wood as her family took their sears for a meal. Ms. Roberts didn't spend a lot of time describing the place - at least it didn't feel like it to me - and yet she transported and kept me there through all three books.
I meant *scrape not *scrap, and *seats not *sears. Oy. Proofreading is your friend. 😉
Debbie, I'm so glad to see I'm not the only person who gets so excited about what I've written that I hit Send without even thinking about proofreading! And, boy, you're right about that O'Dwyer trilogy -- now you've got me wanting to back and read that again. (Hmm, what kind of icon would work best?)
I just this week finished reading "The Sparrow" by Mary Doria Russell. It takes place on two worlds: a few countries on Earth, to give readers the background we need to understand the human characters, and a few ... well, something like kingdoms on Rakhat, so we can see how the different races and species live and behave. Rakhat was made from whole cloth, a habitable-for-earthlings world, and the characters' reason and method for going there was logical for the story.
I read The Sparrow several years ago and I have to say it's one of the very few books that has stayed with me all this time - I was at a writer's conference and when asked what book that no one has ever heard of would you recommend, 7 of the 8 people around the table said The Sparrow. And they were right. It's mind-blowing and mind-altering. Glad to see you mention it.
Oh, thank you, Maggie! I'm so glad to see that someone else is as strongly affected by The Sparrow as I am. I wasn't expecting to feel so absorbed. I really didn't want to leave those worlds - Rakhat, and the recounting and re-understanding of events later, back on Earth. I dragged out reading it as long as I could. I'm glad to know it will stay with me, like it did with you.
Meg, that sounds like a great book for a book group -- it's a stand-alone rather than a series, right? My turn to pick is coming up at our September meeting, so thanks for what should be a strong recommendation!
Maggie, shoot, I'm sorry I clicked the wrong button up there -- and how COOL to see another recommendation right on the heels of the first; thanks for the confirmation!
Laurie, there's a sequel to The Sparrow, called Children Of God. It takes place more on Rakhat than The Sparrow, and the god part is because many of the original crew on Rakhat were Jesuit priests.
Oh, wow, now it's sounding even MORE exciting -- for years my church was staffed by Jesuits. I just put it on hold!
Hi, Laurie! I enjoyed the world built by Cormac McCarthy in The Road. What really made its effect on me was that this was supposed to be a world I knew, but which I no longer knew, since it had been destroyed. It had become unrecognizable, but also believable, since it was in the realm of possiblity, which made it tense and terrifying throughout the story!
Charlotte, isn't it amazing how a grounding in ONE world (like our own) makes a spinoff so much more intriguing? Having never lived in Hobbit country, I can visualize things that seem familiar here and there...but seeing changes to an already familiar world is a whole lot more dramatic. 🙂
My current series is set in Santa Barbara, CA. I'd like to say it's because I love researching, but alas, I grew up there. It's home. Santa Barbara comes with a vibe, rich meets hippy meets college student meet high tech with beautiful coastlines and gorgeous weather (mostly). My first story is about an young widowed artist and a wealthy commercial real estate broker. For me, it taps into the basic diversity that is the city.
Cheryl, I love your Santa Barbara setting...it's fun being able to picture the vibe of the city, and who better to bring it to life than someone who really KNOWS the place? Which suddenly has me wondering if at any point one of your characters will decide to hire a private investigator named Kinsey... 🙂
Cheryl, now you have me intrigued. I grew up in Santa Barbara (Goleta) and graduated from Dos Pueblos. But when I checked your website, see your books aren't available yet. Guess I'll just have to sign up for your newsletter and hope your books will be available on B&N (I'm not an Amazon reader)! 😀
Stacy, your mention of Goleta sparked a memory -- way back in 1979, my dad and I did a road trip and passed through there. We stopped at this co-op type of store for coffee and admired some wooden toy cars, so for Christmas that year I gave him one. Six years later, he gave it to my newborn son. I'd love to think you might've been in that same store at the same time!
Well, Laurie… In 1979 I was stationed at Ft Huachuca, AZ, so the odds weren't good. But that would have been something!
Good heavens, if you ever made it up to Tucson we could EASILY have wound up in the same place!
I love making up small towns - so much, I've created two series revolving around Widow's Grove, California and Unforgiven, New Mexico.
Fae is our Sci-fi writer - create a new world from scratch? Not this girl.
I think the important thing with world-building and scene setting isn't the details themselves - it's highlighting details that are important to the character, that we COULDN'T GUESS. Great place for backstory slip-ins!
Laura, good point about the advantage of being able to plausibly insert backstory through world-building details. And, heck, that applies even if the world is a place the reader knows well, given how differently we all perceive things. Speaking of perception, BOTH your town names are fabulous!
Fae is the bomb world builder!
You're too kind, Jenny. I'm just not all that fond of research!
One of my very favorite books is Johanna Lindsey's Savage Thunder. I love her detail, mixing the wild west with proper English aristrocracy. The little things are what make it important and it has one of the most sensual love scenes I've ever read. I wish I could write like that.
Cindy, you're so right about the little things...isn't it a treat when somebody comes up with just the right details to make a time and place come alive? Now that you've got me thinking of Johanna Lindsey, I can sure see her influence on you -- what a perfect inspiration for your own books!
She definitely was and Julie Garwoods historicals too.
Oh, Cynthia, thank you! Not many people mention Johanna Lindsey any more. She's the author who got me hooked on science fiction romance. Until "Warrior's Woman" I'd been a science fiction freak-no romance, please.
I'm torn. I loved Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. The architectural and engineering details of Chicago over 100 years ago contrasted with a serial killer. Of course being an engineer makes this even more compelling. I also enjoy the Anna Pigeon series by Nevada Barr. Each novel highlights another national park.
Oh, Laurie, I'd hate to have to choose between Erik Larsen and Nevada Barr -- you're right, they're are both REALLY good at creating vivid worlds. And the worlds aren't just there for show, because the way they're built (by man or by God) makes them perfect (and extra intriguing) settings for a murder mystery. (Where's the skull & crossbones icon, anyway?)
Right now, I'm binging on Ilona Andrews' Hidden Legacy series. The worldbuilding is amazing, and accomplished in a few well-applied phrases. The world is parallel to our own, but magic became real in the 1800s--so much of history is the same, but not all. This lets the author use a lot of modern language/references, but also spice it up with some unexpected twists, like a version of Facebook for magic users. I really love how the world draws you in.
Laurie, now I'm imagining Elizabeth Bennett "solving problems" with a bow and arrow a la Katnis. Heh. Guess that's how things like PRIDE, PREJUDICE, AND ZOMBIES comes about.
In my world, there is a bit of magic, and shifters, but the "real" world isn't aware of those things, so part of the worldbuilding is finding a way to keep those things secret. Making it believable is the key, I think.
Rowan, isn't it great having the built-in tension that comes with having to keep things a secret? That seems every bit as effective as a ticking clock, because we can't even imagine (or, well, maybe we CAN) what would happen if the whole world suddenly discovered the truth....
I loved reading the world of Harry Potter--Hogwarts school of wizardry and witchcraft, Diagon Alley, platform 9 3/4, the Hogwarts express, the abandoned red telephone booth that's the portal to The Ministry of Magic... Hagrid's hut, just to name a few place - and then there's all the magical creatures...such an imaginative and intriguing world
Janet, isn't that world amazing? Even the Muggles part of it. 🙂 And I wonder if it's even MORE intriguing to people who've actually spent time in the general area -- seems like that'd give the whole experience an extra zing!
I've mainly shied away from big world-building, preferring contemporary settings (which still require world-building but at a less daunting level). However, I discovered the fun of all this with a series I've co-written with my critique partner, all set on a fictional island where mythological beings take refuge among unsuspecting humans. It's been a ball to mix current settings with mythology of all kinds. We do have to be careful about not going off on tangents, just because they are fun. Though we do add a few just-for-fun elements.
Julie, isn't it fun working in the kind of world where the tangents are so entertaining? You're right about the risks, but choosing the favorite few will be the kind of thing readers absolutely love...I still remember the friend who introduced me to Terry Pratchett talking about the Discworld elephant. 🙂
Ahhh, Terry Pratchett. Thanks for the memories, Laurie...
Beach Music by Pat Conroy! Made me fall in love with the South even more!
Vanessa, isn't he amazing? I think the first Pat Conroy I ever read was The Citadel, and the world-building was stunning. Then I was even more bowled over when he built equally compelling worlds in completely different settings...and now you've got me wanting to go read Beach Music again.
One of my top two authors of all time, Vanessa! And your post reminded me of another - Where the Crawdads Sing!
Just placed a library hold on Beach Music. Ta!
My CP of many (MANY!) years, Lark Brennan has her rights back and will be trying her hand at indie publishing shortly. Helping her and rereading excerpts, etc has brought back how astonishingly in depth and fantastic her psychic world rules are for her Durand family. Each is set in a lushly described setting like Paris or the Caribbean. They are off the retail sights while she updates her covers, etc., but the worlds are magical.
Sarah, how cool that Lark can use real-place photos for her covers and still draw in readers who'll be enchanted by the not-so-visible elements...it's a great way of "grounding" them in the everyday world from which they'll be embarking!
I've created small towns in the mountains of the South, mostly in Tennessee, but one in Virginia. I also have a two small beach town stories.
I love writing small town romance the best.
Denise, you're sure not alone in loving small-town romance -- that's always a great selling point when marketing a new book, because the setting is guaranteed to attract so many readers who dream of living (and maybe some who actually DO live) that lifestyle. And what's not to love about a beach? 🙂
Born and raised in Los Angeles, the idea of writing a small town story is scary to me. My only small town experiences were spending summers traveling from tiny town to tiny town in West Texas to stay at my mother's relatives farms and ranches during the summers. I don't even remember the towns because the farms were huge! I'm more at home in a battleship jumping through space. (I am such a geek...)
Everyone has a favorite comfort zone! 🙂
Green Mansions, read so many years ago, was my first experience with "prose." As a very young teen of the '50s there was much that went over my head, making the read a more literal story, one beautifully described with lush imagery and a powerful setting that still stays with me more than 50 years later. It's a mystical story set in a natural Savannah, jungle-type, tropical rain-forest landscape, placed in a long ago Guyana. This is the mysterious heroine's natural habitat. The magical and spiritual setting Hudson created is integral to the story, and is most definitely a character. Being unfamiliar at that time with the Romeo and Juliet theme, the ending was also quite dramatic and a direct result of the setting. Hmmm. I could say the 2009 film, Avatar has similar parallels.
Nancy, I'm so glad you mentioned the author's name -- as soon as you said "Green Mansions" I flashed on Anya Seton, who I automatically credited with writing that book. But no, that was "Green Darkness," so now I've gotta go check out the as-yet-unexplored Guyana!
I *loved* Harry Potter's world. So much that I love to go to visit it whenever possible, if only for the Butterbeer. (So much so I'm having a staff potluck in September that's Hogwarts themed!)
I haven't been writing much of late; however, my boss (he's a fun guy) insisted I play a round of Dungeons & Dragons (which I'd never played), because he thinks I'm a good storyteller/plotter. My coworker gets her husband to be the Dungeon Master for this "one-off" as they call it--and I'm supposed to build this character. I looked through the options of race and class--and picked half-elf, and a warlock. But again, that doesn't explain how I got there--what was my world? I had to flesh it out. I decided I became a warlock (which requires I make a deal with a demon) because I never wanted to feel powerless again. Why had I been powerless? That question suddenly popped up a vivid setting in my mind of being locked in a dungeon by my husband who had nearly killed me--and had killed my baby--and thus I had made the deal to escape the dungeon and exact revenge on him, to destroy him. I only share this--because I'm sure like me most of us don't care about D&D--because I love how asking the right questions can suddenly populate the setting and backstory for the story you're telling yourself. It's not always "what's the climate?" or "what foods do they eat there?" but how did the character become the person they are now at the start of the story--and how has that colored how the character reacts thereafter (perception filters)?
It just plays into my bias that it's character that makes story more than plot. *LOL*
Fran, you're SO right about how important character is to the story world! If the world didn't have characters who are facing disasters and triumphs because of what's in it, there'd be no point to putting them in any setting at all...they could all just sit on folding chairs in a gym. Good for you on exercising your creativity in a whole new field!
A story world I love: the London in Sherlock Holmes' stories. When I actually visited London several years ago I was disappointed to find that it's just another large city. :>(
I have mixed feelings about the one in my WIP. The outside world is a terrible place (everything's been taken over by corporations) and the immediate world my characters live in isn't always pleasant either since a lot of things are dictated from above that make their lives hard. On the other hand, it's a place where hard work produces success and isolation forces the people there to interact more than they would have if they just lived in a regular place (no moving away, they're stuck in the one location). They also have all of their basic needs met (someone else does the cooking, cleaning etc.) which leaves the story to focus on the fun/dramatic parts.
Heather, I know what you mean about expecting more magic from Sherlock Holmes' city -- I kept thinking "maybe the cool stuff is around the next corner." And your own story world does a fabulous job of providing all kinds of opportunity for tension from just about every angle imaginable, so the characters DESERVE to have someone else do the housekeeping. 🙂
Hands down Harry Potter. I'm not awesome at visualization, which is particularly difficult when trying to build a world (which is why I'm excited for your world-building class to start the 12th!!), and admittedly, the movies helped. BUT I was able to enjoy my own imaginings as I read each book. It was exciting to discover every new nook and cranny, every new thing about this world of magic, and I was amazed at how thorough the world is that Rowling created. I cannot imagine the system she used to keep track of all these details!! It would be overwhelming.
I definitely DON'T need to build a world like that for my WIP. Phew!
Beth, I'm so sorry I missed your comment earlier! Boy, I'm right there with you in feeling grateful that not every book needs anywhere NEAR the level of world-building that went into the Harry Potter series...you're doing absolutely fine with a more "ordinary" world. (Which is the kind I like writing best, myself.) But you're right in thinking it's handy to know the tricks of how to build ANY kind, and I'm looking forward to a week from Monday. 🙂
I just finished reading Jess Anastasi's Valiant Knox series, and I'm in awe of how effortless her worldbuilding feels. The futuristic setting is completely real without explanation of how things evolved or why they're different from Earth, and yet it's also fully familiar.
Natalie, it's impressive when an author doesn't need to tell us how the story world came to be because it's perfectly credible as is -- that's a great sign the readers aren't gonna be bogged down in nit-picky details; they're just too engrossed in the story to worry about such things!
My first love in story worldbuilding has been the mid-century world of Los Angeles, the world of boxing and detectives. My first two published books feature this world. My third book yet to publish is the sequel and then I'm writing from the detective's world with gangsters and mobsters. I love the research on the history of the time, the life of a detective and his dame, the nightclubs and the downtown LA police department.
Carol, you've got a wonderfully colorful story world there -- in fact, you'd fit right in at my local writers' chapter party next month, where the theme is Noir Detectives. (Costumes encouraged.) And it's so cool that there actually IS information available on the world you've chosen; I'll bet that's all kinds of fun to research.
Hogwarts, yes. Middle Earth, naturally. But the favorite world of my own is the small town I created for my Cedar Hill Romance series. The first three books in this series are a rewrite and relaunch of an earlier series set in a real Pennsylvania town. I am much happier with the fictional town I created, which remains in the same general locale. I am also creating a small university town in the Texas Hill Country, for another series.
For me, the best part of creating a setting is gaining a familiarity with the plants, flowers, trees and birds that would populate the area--animals also, but not so many of those. Knowing these allow me to let the reader see the colors, smell the air, and hear the sounds of a place--especially on quiet evenings!!
Susan, way to go on getting your Cedar Hill rights back -- it's nice to be able to make the town exactly what YOU want it to be! Your readers are in for a treat; anyone who loves the nature sounds and smells and sights of a quiet evening will keep hoping for more and more stories.
As I read your post, the Viking trilogy by Josie Litton came to mind. Saxon England and Viking lands were so vivid in my mind. I re-read those 3 stories every so often. The feel of her writing, her voice fed the world building---lyrical, techni-color, bright, with shades of softness and allure. LOL!! Is it possible to feel colors? I'd say yes. When I experience it in a book, it's great. Nice post!
Gina, if it was Josie Litton's books that influenced you to write Viking stories, we all owe her a huge thanks! And the idea of being able to feel colors is fascinating; I'm trying to get a mental image of what that's like and suspecting I'll enjoy the pondering for quite a while this weekend during the annual Sisters Vacation.
Two books I enjoyed: The Code of the Woosters by P.G. Wodehouse and The Death of a Dude by Rex Stout. Wodehouse and Stout both created worlds that are believable and inhabited them with characters who become the reader’s good friends. No easy feat. Just thinking about the cow creamer in Code brings a big smile to my face. Dude takes place exclusively in Montana, Nero Wolfe doesn’t just leave New York City. He leaves the state and joins Archie Goodwin on Lily Rowan’s ranch.
Paula, there's a lot to be said for taking Nero Wolfe to what's practically the opposite end of the earth -- what better way to create a completely new story world for an already beloved character? I'll bet there are readers who view that as one of their favorites, and others who think "whew, glad he's back in New York." 🙂
I was totally immersed when I read Tolkien’s Hobbit and then Lord of the Rings trilogy . There were points were I felt truly a part of the story. I totally lost a weekend reading, lol. J.K. Rowling books had a similar effect of me. I on the other hand have never quite grasped that ability to paint with words.
Margie, it's hard to think of a greater tribute to any author than to say their books were responsible for you totally losing a weekend reading! And it's fascinating that both the series which did that to you had incredibly deep and rich story worlds...what a perfect way of illustrating how important those can be.
Oh, Margie, you take me back to a misspent youth! Tolkien ruled my junior and senior years in high school. A small group of us spoke in Tolkien "code" during our physics experiments and chem labs, and we even wrote and published a weekly underground newspaper ("The Thistle Tube") that our classmates read, even though I think they didn't get all the references to Middle Earth that our editor put into his articles.
Fae, you just reminded me of when the guy who sat next to me in physics lent me his copy of The Hobbit -- I'd never read fantasy before, and was astonished at finding there was this whole other world of books I never even knew existed! If you and I had gone to the same school, there's no way I could've missed it. 🙂
Even though I write two series (one with vampires, the other with ghosts), they're actually in the same world! I liked writing it so much, I guess. My world has vampires that aren't known to the public, so I made sure one popped up in the ghost series, unknown to those characters that he's a vampire (and unknown to the reader, too, unless they read the vampire series). And while I've featured some of the books in Pittsburgh and Atlanta (two cities I've visited often), Dayton is my favorite because I live here.
Stacy, it's such a kick that the two series CAN interact but don't HAVE to -- veterans will be tickled while newcomers won't feel left out. You're smart to use cities you've visited often (although it's hard to be living there in terms of knowing a place) because that way you don't have to spend nearly as much time on research as on the actual story!
I loved the world created by Brenda Novak in her Talbot series, especially when Ms. Talbot went to Alaska, I think it was. I was freezing just reading it. It added to the feeling of isolation and desperation of the book.
Patti, I'm amazed at hearing about a Brenda Novak series I haven't yet read -- what a nice piece of news for the weekend about to unfold. And, hmm, driving through the Arizona desert makes the notion of feeling frozen a whole lot more enticing... 🙂
Laurie, I heard of Brenda Novak years ago because of the auction that she organizes for a medical condition I can't recall...then I read one of her books a year or so ago and thought, "How could I not have read her novels?" I love anything and everything she writes. And she has a fantastic fan base with a ton of gifts and things for her fans.
Oh, Patti, the condition is juvenile diabetes -- her son and I both have it. So one time when I was sitting by her at a lunch my insulin pump did a little beep, and she was startled at hearing that same sound from someone besides him! That was always such a great auction. 🙂
Laurie, my mother's mother died from diabetes when my mom was only nine years old. When Brenda was running her annual auctions I donated a week at my timeshare on the south shore of Kauai. It felt so good to know that maybe my contribution would help a child have their mother much longer than my mother did.
Oh, I remember that year's auction and wondering who on earth would donate a week in Hawaii -- what fun to learn, all these years later, it was you!
Just about to hit the road for Sisters Vacation this weekend, but I'll check back in about four hours because it's such fun reading all these thoughts on story worlds! Thanks to everyone who's shared great ideas, and I hope most of you are already embarked on a delightful weekend.
A world that's stuck with me for more years than I care to admit is the world of one of my favorite childhood book series, All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor. It's about five sisters from a Jewish family who live in turn-of-the-20th-century New York City. The details about the girls' home and family and schools and surroundings and religious celebrations were so vividly written that even though I haven't read any of the books in several years (I still own them, though), all I have to do is close my eyes and instantly feel like I'm immersed back in that world again.
Okay, now I have to go re-read the books. 🙂 Great article, Laurie--thanks for writing it!
Linda, what fun seeing those girls again! I re-read the series last year and loved how well it's held up over the years...still as good as it was way back when. And it seemed like their world had just the right amount of detail; enough to be interesting but never so much it got dull.
I've never forgotten All-of-a-Kind Family, either!
My own fictional world of Shipwreck Island holds romance for me. But I also really loved Narnia!
C.R., what a great combination Shipwreck Island and Narnia are -- two worlds where ANYTHING could happen, and readers can't help but wonder and imagine all the possibilities as the various details gradually come into focus throughout each one of the stories. 🙂
crbwriter: Narnia. Says it all. Thanks!
Laurie, I'm late to the party but any world that has to do with Montana is my favorite place to be, whether reading about it, or just visiting there. My story is set in the fictitious town of Granite Ridge, Montana but I use the real towns (Butte, Billings, etc) when my characters have to travel anywhere in the state. I read Louis L'amour at a young age and loved how he described his small towns. So, anything with cowboys, cows, ranches, farms, cowboys, or Montana rocks my world.
You'd probably love the series YELLOWSTONE then, M.Lee Scott. It's filmed in Montana and another state and it's gorgeous.
Patricia, I haven't watched it yet. I lived there 18 years and just got back last week from a visit. The beauty of it never leaves my heart. I spent two days in YNP while I was there, too.
M. Lee, what a cool phrase: "Montana rocks my world." I'm already envisioning that on a T-shirt or tote bag you could give away at fan signings or as a release-date prize! And of course you'd have to take some back to Butte....
Laurie, your faith in me is constant and I appreciate it. I think I will have a t-shirt or tote made and make sure you get one the next time we meet. (insert smiley face)
What a lovely thought -- I'll be VERY proud (and honored!) to wear it. 🙂
Laurie, I've recently read Jill Shalvis's Heartbreaker Bay series which is set in San Francisco and features characters who work and/or live in a fictional historical building with a central courtyard, a wishing fountain, a pub, and an alley complete with a witty homeless guy who makes an appearance in each book. By the time I was a few books into the series, I was almost as fond of the building and its surrounds (and the sense of community it portrayed) as I was of the characters and I looked forward to revisiting the setting with each book.
Ange, what a great point about how physically small a story world can be...I always tend to think of the entire city or region, but a single building works every bit as well. And having the same characters make appearances in book after book is a lovely way of maintaining the continuity within that world.
Thanks for letting us know about this series, Angela. Your description is enough to get me to my computer to buy the first book!
I have delighted in reading all the replies and the book recommendations are delicious. Laurie has posted she’s away for the weekend, so I’m posting a p.s. to recommend to you all what I consider one of the best books I’ve read, a book which filled me with awe as a writer, librarian and avid reader: Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing.
Set in natural marshland, a tidal world, where shells, grasses, feathers and even sounds amplify setting, social construct and deepen characterisation. I got a copy from the library, stopped 1/3 way in and bought my own so I can make notes in the margins.
They’ll probably turn it to a movie, but honestly, Owens’ mastery will put you right there between the lines in the protag’s skin.
Thank you for that amazing book and author suggestion. I'm going to try it.
Jay, that sounds like another book-group winner -- definitely worth checking out; thanks for the recommendation. Isn't it fun seeing familiar favorites and completely new books that all share the glories of a fabulous story world?
Jay, I added a response to someone else before I saw your post! WTCS was amazing - and it shows her stellar ability in the fact that I don't really care anything about the setting of her book, but she made me fall in love with it - feel like I've been there! And Laurie, 18k reviews with an average of 4.8 stars can't be wrong!
Hi Laura. I totally agree with you - I don’t usually go for boggy swamps and marshland settings either. It does say a lot when care factor zero grows to 100% immersed (!) and captivated. I wonder how many of those reviews are from writers. It’s not just the crawdads singing, of that I’m sure. X jay
My favorite story "world" is definitely Narnia, just because it's so intricate and well-thought out. I also love a series of Julie Garwood books where the "world" is connected by the same family of characters appearing throughout. I love how the world can be a physical setting or built around characters and plot. What a great topic!
Amanda, way to go on spotting the many things that can make up a story world -- you're absolutely right that it's far more than JUST the setting! (Hmm, does that give away how I came up with the title for the class? 🙂 )
Thanks for the memories, Amanda. When I was beginning to read romance, someone suggested a Julie Garwood book: Knight in Shining Armor. It was the first romance book that made me cry. In a very good way.
Guess I'm the lone night owl here. One of my favorite worlds was Frank Hebert's Dune series, which went into not only politics, history and religion, but also currency. For my own work, I keep things more down to Earth. My current WIP is in mid-60s South Boston, a working class neighborhood with strong (and sometimes claustrophobic) community ties. We forget how drastically societal expectations have changed fro women.
Dominique, it's great to see people are still awake! My sister and I got settled in for our first night of vacation and I whipped out the laptop to get caught up...your description of the WIP's world is wonderfully evocative; it sure WAS a whole different era. I remember thinking how amazing it was that my grandparents lived from pre-automobile days through the moon landing, but those of us living now can brag about seeing just as many changes!
Yes, Dominique! Frank Herbert's "Dune" was the second science fiction book I read. It helped turn me into a hard-core science fiction freak instead of an adventure reader (Sabatini and other swashbucklers).
Another great post and the class sounds really interesting. I love story worlds as they let me travel. I can enjoy recency England with Mr Darcy and then head to contemporary America. The best books combine reality and fantasy making it easy to believe your own happily ever after is possible. That's why I love reading Australian authors.
"The best books combine reality and fantasy making it easy to believe your own happily ever after is possible." So true, Tracey. Thanks for the reminder of why we write, whether it's to deliver a happily ever after, a touching story, a detective thriller, or a horror story.
Jay waves to Tracey from Edenhope in Western Victoria, Australia. 😉
Tracey, I've never thought about Australian authors having an extra gift for combining reality and fantasy -- but now I've got to start paying closer attention; that's an intriguing premise! Because, heck even in traditional romances and murder mysteries, we could say that a Guaranteed Happy Ending is ALWAYS a fantasy...
Thinking about my characters was a way to escape to beautiful exotic places. The locations for my novel grew from my characters. They have been speaking to me since I was a teenager. As I imagined my characters I found myself thinking about my desire to travel to New York City and Italy. When I first began writing my novel, I hadn’t travel to New York or Italy. Recently, I traveled to Italy. It was a dream come true to finally visit one of the places I imagined my characters would live. While visiting the many beautiful towns I pictured my characters, new plots and new adventures. The trip has added richness to my novel in a way I never would have imagined.
Mercedes, how wonderful that you got to be inspired by the actual world where your book is taking place! That'll make a great story for author interviews when it comes out; you can show photos of the towns that suggested THIS scene or THAT scene...fun stuff ahead. 🙂
Wonderful post, as usual, Laurie. A certain portion of the story that I'm currently working on is set in the film world of 1930's Bombay. Actually the story idea triggered after I read a great non-fiction book titled "A History of Bollywood" by Mihir Bose. I was totally fascinated by the workings of the film industry which nearly a 100 years ago was one of the most global industries of the time - with people coming from all over to make movies in colonial India. I wish I had a travel machine so that I could "see" that world first hand. LOL. But I think, the world is already alive in my imagination and is adding so much colour to my WIP.
*I meant time-travel machine" in my comment above! Oops!
Adite, just yesterday my sister and I were talking about Bollywood -- how cool there's actually a history in print! And, soon to come, a novel (or at least parts of a novel) as well...movie-making is a fascinating world wherever / whenever it takes place, and getting that along with the intrigue of colonial India is a win-win!
I have read and reread every story in J.R. Ward's Black Dagger Brotherhood. The description of their home/headquarters is slanted by the perspective of each book's protagonist. The setting is a character steeped in old money and modern day electronic security. The setting draws you in and whispers there's danger around every corner.
A critique partner once said my people live in a vacuum. Since then, I've worked to make sure the setting is an essential element to my stories.
Belinda, that's such great advice about people living in a vacuum -- so very well condensed. I remember another writer asking her partner who wasn't inclined to description "are these people just sitting in the middle of nowhere, naked?" and now "living in a vacuum" will go on my list of fabulous phrases!
Taking a break from Sisters Vacation -- during which we're, if you can believe it, making paper dolls like we used to as kids -- to put the names of 37 commenters into random-dot-org, which generated #8.
So congratulations go to the eighth commenter, Maggie Smith -- just contact me directly at Book Laurie@ gmail etc and I'll get you into the classroom at https://groups.io/g/MTSWB
And thanks to EVERYBODY who's posted such fabulous comments...I appreciate all of you speaking up!
A thrilling post all round. Thanks Laurie, and congratulations to Maggie. I loved paper dolls as a child and could easily love them again.
Thanks for the world-building post. Enjoy your vacation! Congrats to Maggie!
I'm aware the contest is over. But this blog article brought back to me the Anne McCaffrey's setting of DragonRiders of Pern and the world 'Pern' that was periodically attacked by Thread. Human and dragon heroes fight the scourge and as a reader this world building was phenomenal. I've written a 1000 stories that involved new worlds and new species in my own creative endeavors. Anne is my motivation and sci-fi hero. Umm, well her and Elizabeth Moons Deeds of Paksenarrion from Gird to Paks to beyond. And David Weber Honor Series. And...gheesh...so many.
My own work sample
The Canid: Spirito
Spirito Deshik, born first son, destined to bond as protector of the potentate of the Royal house, is given a reading at the Temple of the Skaveen in his 3rd birth year. The reading foretells of immense trials and his mastery of many skills, and a unique star-filled destiny, far from his home planet. If he is a protector, bonded and sworn to defend the royal house line, his permanent position on his home planet Canid, would not be questioned. But the Skaveen are as certain as the twin moons rise above the planet. Spirito Deshik will be protector and he will leave the planet to fulfill a destiny. While the history of his youth and training, the war trials, and his bonding as protectorate are documented in the historicals, this is the true account of how he became the 14th Kingship protector of how he broke the sacred bond only to become a legend on his world and others long after.
The Canid, with his stunning silver-white wolf features—his long muzzle, fur covered skin, large sharp teeth unique to his species—stared, his eyes narrowed. "I am Spirito Deshik, warrior of Canid, master of Chu, Doha, Fuad, Sune, and Eyas" His white paws flowed as he spoke, going through a sequence of symbols for each. A fist for strength, a lifted two claws for life, three digits spread to press against his brow for wisdom, four curled digits held against his fur covered chest for peace, and finally he brought the back of his paws to touch, for death. His fluid hand-dance displayed control, power, and certainty.
Jeanne, it's wonderful to know exactly which author/s inspired you...that way, every time you mention it ANY readers who loved 'em will know "oh, boy, this is the kind of writing I love as well!"
J. D. Robb is one of my all-time favorite authors. Love Jane Austen's books too. And Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged will probably remain as my #1 favorite book.
Denise, talk about long-lasting favorites! It sure speaks well for the world-building in each of those series or stand-alone books that they've stayed on people's keeper-shelf lists pretty much ever since they were first published.