Tips on World Building

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A diorama my son made in sixth grade.

I took a class taught by Aprilynne Pike on world building back in February at the ANWA conference. I was asked to give a lesson on world building for my writing group, and I thought I’d adapt  a few things I’ve come up with into a blog post.

 

First of all: a synonym to “world building” is “setting.” All books have a setting. It is, in fact, one of the most basic elements in a story.

I remember reading a piece by someone in my writing group, long ago, soon after I joined. It was just a short chapter, but it was brilliant. The only thing I recall at this point is a quirky little town parade and something about a stuffed goat on wheels. (That’s right. On wheels.) As we discussed her piece in the chapter meeting, the writer said something that has stuck with me, lo, these many years. She said, in effect, “What I am trying to do in this story is make the setting another character.”

I was fairly new to writing at this point, and that statement struck me as genius. I hadn’t ever heard that before—I hadn’t even considered it before. The setting as a character?! A whole galaxy of possibilities opened up.

So I feel like setting is the first level, but when you take it to the next level,  it puts you into world-building territory. (Although I did have a friend point out—you can change setting and still be in the same world. True.) And when you’ve built an amazing world to go along with your amazing story, that’s when your book will truly resonate and be memorable.

In Aprilynne Pike’s class, she talked about her Wings series and how she has pages and pages of information just about the land of faerie—most of it not in the book. She had a whole history of the land, along with a monetary/bartering system, maps, and rules that govern the way the magic works. Even though all that information wasn’t part of the story, she attested it gave her work a depth, a realness, that wouldn’t have been there otherwise.

She gave a couple of examples of other works during her class, where she read only small excerpts. Even though they were short, they still showed the type of world and set up how the setting became a character. Her first example was from Carrie Ryan’s The Forest of Hands and Teeth. Within the first few pages the world she has built is definitely a character in the story—a main character, from the looks of it.

Another example she used was from The Giver by Lois Lowry. When I think of dystopian lit, it seems there are two types of worlds: ones where everything is in the hands of a controlling government and things are very, very bad (like The Hunger Games or 1984) and ones where everything is in the hands of a controlling government and things seem all right at first (Matched or The Alliance). I think The Giver falls into the latter category.

Compared to a lot of other dystopian lit out there, The Giver starts out tamely. The world is a happy place and people are privileged to live there. And yet, there’s still this underlying wrongness about it. I started reading The Giver to my girls at the beginning of the summer, and when we got to the part where people were only allowed to raise two children (not their own), and the birth mothers were on the very bottom rung of society (after their “birthing years” were through, they were put in menial, hard labor jobs for the rest of their lives), my 9-year-old was completely horrified. So even though the language was “happy” and the people were “content” and the mother explains this to her daughter in a very matter-of-fact “this is the way it’s always been” way, Lois Lowry was able to strike these chords without really saying anything at all. There’s nothing overt in the book that says, “This is a crazy way to live.” She’s made the setting—the world—say that by simply being.

World-building does not come naturally to me. For this reason, I know I’m going to have to save an entire edit when my book is finished to simply go through and add in those details that add authenticity, the ring of truth, and that extra dimension of entering a whole new world. (Don’t you dare close your eyes!)

Key Points:

  • Make your setting another character in your story.
  • Use surprising details to pull the reader in—sight, smell, taste, touch, sound—and ensure the setting has a history as well as a future.
  • Let it affect the mood and tone of the story you’re telling.
  • Most of all: don’t forget to use it. Building a fascinating world where people want to go and see what goes on there is worth the extra time it will take you, as the writer, to weave into your book. Liz Adair has said, “I write cheap vacations.” So take your readers somewhere!

 

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Cold River by Liz Adair

I don’t normally read romantic suspense. I’m more of a cozy-type gal. However, when I heard the premise for Cold River I was intrigued. Here’s what the back cover says:

Mandy Steenburg thinks her doctorate in education has prepared her to run any school district–until she tangles with the moonshine-making, coon-dog-owning denizens of a tiny district in Pacific Northwest timber country. She’s determined to make a difference, but the local populace still looks to the former superintendent for leadership. When Mandy lands in the middle of an old feud and someone keeps trying to kill her, instinct tells her to run. And though she has to literally swim through perilous waters, she finds a reason to stay and chance the odds.

Hmm. A lady superintendent? A small school district in the Pacific Northwest? I’m so there.

I bought the book and read for an hour one afternoon while my daughters were at piano lessons. When I got home, I couldn’t find the book anywhere. It was incredibly annoying. I looked in all the usual places, but it did not reveal itself. I read two other books over the next few days, but in the back of my mind I was gnashing my teeth. “What happens to Mandy? Does she fall in love with Vince? Does Grange get over his grudge?”

I found it that weekend (on the bookshelf, of all places!) and happily plowed through the rest of the book to reach the satisfying conclusion. And then I had to go back and read it slower so I could savor the good parts.

Adair has drawn a large cast of likable, quirky characters. She captured the feel of the Pacific Northwest perfectly (I should know–I live here. So does she!) and kept the mystery going right up until the end.

Cold River is a great read, with wonderful characters and several unique twists (steel drums, for one) in the plot. I enjoyed it very much.