Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

Worldbuilding: 
From Hometown to Galaxy's End

By 
Jon Chaisson
©2003, Jon Chaisson
 

o you remember those days in grade school when you brought home your newly acquired textbooks, and your first assignment was to put paper covers on them?  The easiest and cheapest covers were always made out of those brown paper grocery bags.  My mother had quite the collection of them, so I was never without a cover.  I'm sure that for most students the cover would get plastered with band names, love notes, assignments, and countless scribbles to get a pen working again.

I must have been the only kid in the entire school system to plaster his book covers with drawings of maps.  The first question I'd get was, "Hey, what's that a map of?" and often I'd shrug and say that I didn't know, I just made it up as I went along.  Their reaction to that was an interesting cross between fascination and concern. 

I honestly have no idea where my interest in cartography came from; I have never even studied it.  I believe it came from digging out roads for my collection of matchbox cars in the side yard dirt.  I enjoyed drawing from an early age onward, but when a fifth grader bypasses the usual badly copied caricatures and band logos, and goes straight to drawing maps, something's a little peculiar.  To this day, I still get people asking me what I'm drawing a map of when they look over my shoulder.  I have one in my back pocket right now, which I work on during breaks.


I see map drawing as art, rather than a show of geometry and geography, simply because I draw maps of nonexistent places.  Many of these drawings take their inspiration from real places, such as a river's path that I drive past every day, or a highway's path that I'm familiar with.  There is always a railroad stop near the center of town, a fork in the river, a gas station and at least two churches.  There is always a mountain or at least a high hill nearby, with a path to the top.

I'm especially fond of geographical maps—the US Census maps with the elevation marks and the green-shaded woodlands.  If I stare long enough at it, the three-dimensional effect works better than those Magic Eye posters I've never been able to figure out.  With these maps I see the shape of the land, of what it once was, and how we as a nation have carved and tended it to our liking.

When creating the fictional city-state of Bridgetown for my work in progress, I fell back on my meager cartography skills to create a sprawl that captured the sheer size of a futuristic city, filled with not only humans but humanoid aliens.  My only prerequisites were a wide river with an island to the south, the ocean to the east, federal "wilderlands" to the north, a "nullport" to the west, and a giant tower right in the middle of it all.  Everything else in between was a free-for-all.

There are a dozen 'sectors' in Bridgetown.  I used the history of Boston's suburbs as a parallel for these sectors, deeming them former cities and towns incorporated into a larger whole.  Thus, each sector had its own unique story, from Branden Hill's academia to the uppercrust Pullock Street Heights to manufacturing in South City.  These were all off-the-cuff ideas, things I never put much thought into until I needed them.  Once I placed points of interest in those sectors, such as a college or police headquarters or a museum, it only opened up yet another avenue (pardon the pun) for me to investigate.  Secondary and tertiary characters, even entities like companies and stores, came out of the woodwork, all begging for a bit part.

I soon realized that the term "worldbuilding" does not necessarily need to be taken literally; a writer need not create an entire planet, for instance, if he or she is writing a fantasy that takes place only in Wolf's Glen.  It may not even be an entire town, but a local neighborhood.  You control the world here; take only what you deem important to the story, but keep an ear open for its secrets and lost legends.

Keep in mind that each town has its own story.  That story may or may not be the one you write, but it is definitely part of it.  You need not come up with a long, detailed history; you must, however, create just enough for your characters to react to it in some way.  One of my main characters lives in a dangerous sector of Bridgetown, but the fact that he's so familiar with it from his childhood leads him to believe that he wouldn't want to live anywhere else.  Another character hates the area because it makes her uncomfortable. 

These rules should exist in equal scale when creating anything from a magical realm to a planet to a universe.  Of course, the regular laws of physics, logic, and reason might hamper some of your wilder plans, but above all, your world is only as real as the characters that live and move within it.  It's often the best part of writing, because once you know where your characters are, chances are you know how they'll react; thus you'll be able to keep the story moving forward.

I'm still drawing maps, only now I have a handful of sketchpads rather than book jackets, like the notepad I always carry around in my back pocket. I never know when inspiration is going to strike.  Map drawing has become a good meditation, as it forces me to focus on only one thing.  I picture what the land actually looks like in each of these drawings, from the placement of houses on a street to the rise and fall of each hill.  Creating the setting for a story is very much the same thing.

Perhaps being a peculiar kid in the fifth grade wasn't such a bad thing after all.

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