The Importance of location
When fingertips touch the keyboard to write a story, a writer is beginning the process of building a new world. How mundane, ordinary, complex or exotic doesn’t matter, writers are world builders.
While the term usually conjures up alien civilizations or fantasy castles, the truth is when the screenwriters imagined Cabot Cove of Murder She Wrote or the author of Midsomer Murders borrowed the countryside of England near Oxford to use as the setting for her novel, they were building a world.
Designing a new world is complex. When writing a science fiction or fantasy story, you start with a blank slate, creating everything. If you choose a ‘ready-made’ location, much is already set in place, you only need to tweak locales to suit your plot needs.
There are three types of world building. Let’s look at what is involved with each.
The Created World
This the world most think about when hearing the term “world building.” The science fiction and fantasy genres where a writer’s imagination selects everything that exists.
- Design the physical world: terrain (mountainous, desert, forest, coastal), atmosphere, location in the universe.
- Create races of beings (keeping natural conditions in mind).
- Culture including art, music, writing.
- Government and military systems.
- Infrastructure and city planning.
- And everything else!
The Real World
This world is the one we know. Most stories are set in villages, towns or cities that we are familiar with or have a history to draw from. Historical fiction novels are set in a known past. All other genres, other than those of the created world, fall here.
Fictional locations can be written but do not deviate from what is known. A small town can be created for a cozy mystery novel, but it will have the same features as any small town. The government, military, and the culture will be as we know it.
The Alternate Reality World
This is a world that we think we know, but it is not the same. The Alternate history genre tweaks the actual outcomes of significant events such as the ending of World War II and redirects history. The landscape and peoples may remain, but the government, military, culture, infrastructure, and perhaps agriculture may have been altered.
The Mystery World
Mystery stories typically fall into the realm of the “Real World” although mysteries can be set in an imaginary world. There are some considerations to make as you develop your mystery world.
You must set a world conducive to a murder mystery. That is one where you do not reveal too much about the world where your detective or your killer resides. You must leave unanswered questions about the world.
Clues, both real and red herrings, must be set in the framework but again against a backdrop of mystery. If the murder happens in a room where there is a secret door, until the detective knows there is a secret door, the reader should not either. If the story is being told from the POV of the killer, then the door may be revealed to the reader but not the detective. Again, you have created your world, but you must keep it secret.
Someone must solve the crime. If you are writing crime fiction, a law enforcement officer will be your lead investigator. The agency the investigator works for, a local police department, the FBI or any other agency must be created.
Details should include:
- Department structure: Who is in charge? What are your investigator’s rank and responsibilities?
- Ancillary services: Is there a forensics department? A medical examiner? A video tech?
In a cozy fiction, the investigator is a civilian. It is essential to establish the plausibility that they can solve a crime.
Details should include:
- Who is this amateur sleuth?
- How did they become involved in the murder?
- Who do they know? (family and friends)
- What are the skills they possess that might assist them in solving a crime?
- Do they know someone close to the official investigation that might have information to share? (police officer, medical examiner, prosecutor, reporter, etc.)
Wait. Less World Building is Better?
There is a fallacy in the concept of world building. While crucial to the development of your story, it is the story that drives the world building, not the opposite.
Many authors, especially those who write science fiction and fantasy, revel in creating every minutia of the world they are writing about. That may be a satisfying exercise for the author but an unnecessary one. Despite the plethora of world building worksheets available, the process is considerably more straightforward than it appears.
The only world building you need is dictated by the story you write. Let’s assume that you are writing a science fiction story set on a spaceship. The most immediate world you should describe is the world your characters exist in, the spaceship. Description, origin, propulsion system, crew, food stores, destination, and reason for the mission are all crucial aspects of the world that need to be determined. A planet they stop on for only a short time requires less description, a planet where most of the action takes place needs more explanation.
Do not write your story around your world, but create the world around your story.