Vision: A Resource for Writers

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Afloat on an Iceberg:
Creating Background

By Lee Killough
Copyright © 2008 by Lee Killough, All Rights Reserved

Say “world-building” and most writers think “alien planets.”  But every story happens somewhere and that “somewhere” needs building...not just for science fiction and fantasy but mysteries, westerns, spy thrillers, Regency romances, and the Great American Novel.  Historical settings must be researched.  So does any contemporary location not well known to the author.  A real place a thousand miles away or a decade or two in the past can be as “alien” as another planet.  If the plot uses supernatural elements --- elves, magic, ghosts, psychics, vampires, werewolves --- it needs a background allowing them to exist.  And of course any fictional setting, even one close to the author’s Here and Now, needs to be developed.  Take the example of a small town.  No two are alike.  Fast food franchises differ from area to area.  So do supermarket and department store chains.  A farming or ranching community will have different stores than a college town.  Yearly rhythms are affected by harvest, working cattle, or the college schedule.  In the latter case, depending on the number of town residents connected to the college, even the beginning and end of the grade and high school year may be determined by the college semesters.  Towns in areas with tourist traffic or seasonal sports are likewise shaped by catering to the tourists and sports.  Working out those details is world-building.

And I love it...whether creating a planet and aliens, building a fictional town, or checking out the history and present-day aspects of a real place on Earth.  Reading about it, studying maps, talking to people who know it, traveling there if possible.  If I cannot go there personally...thank you for the Internet!  Where Google has satellite photos of everywhere --- not always up to date, true ---  and in many cities a street scene option that lets me pick an address and virtually stand at pavement level where I can turn 360 degrees to see what the area looks like.  The next best thing to being there.  Constructing background is like putting together a puzzle...figuring out all the little details...the clothes, the food, the houses, local transportation, local amusements, local slang.  It is making up the rules for a ghost, as I did in Killer Karma, determining out how he would move around, how he could become visible to people.  It is making up rules for a vampire.  Deciding that yes, he will have a reflection but no, he cannot enter a dwelling uninvited, because that presents a dramatic obstacle for a vampire who is also a cop.  It is creating a werewolf who does not have to worry what happens to her clothes in shifting to wolf form.  For me, world-building is half the fun of writing the book.  Never mind that most of the information I work out will never appear in the novel. 

A waste?  Not at all.  Think of background as an iceberg.  Only a small portion shows, those details necessary for the story, but the unseen bulk is equally important.  Not only has it often suggested plot twists I would never have thought of in the context of my own Here and Now, it is crucial support for what does appear in the story.  When I read a novel, I want to feel as though I’m living in Harry Potter’s Hogwarts, or Tony Hillerman’s Navaho country, or the ancient China of Robert van Gulik’s Judge Dee.  So I want my own books to give readers the same kind of experience.  Which I can’t do without knowing novel’s world so thoroughly I am immersed in it as I write.  I don’t want to end up with something like a romance I read years ago...and always remember as a warning to myself.  Though set in South Africa, it had so little sense of place that the characters seemed to speak their lines in front of a blank backdrop.

Memorable characters might have saved the book for me, someone more than the stock naive protagonist, the Heathcliff-like love interest, and the catty other woman.  Because while landscape sets mood and sometimes becomes a character in the story --- what would Wuthering Heights and The Hound of the Baskervilles be without the brooding moors? --- it doesn’t drive the story.  Characters do that...and what makes them interesting and uniquely who they are is their background.

A big part of what we’re doing in world-building, then, is really culture-building.  Culture envelops each of us from the moment of birth...permeating our lives, influencing us at fundamental but unconscious levels to shape our attitudes, our prejudices, our reactions.  We know it is Harry Potter’s fate to fight Voldemort, but I think that because he was deprived of friends and a sense of belonging while living with the Dursleys, part of what drives his courage is the desire to protect the world of magic where he has found friends and a sense of belonging.  Judge Dee believes in spirits because his ancient China does.  In his time it was also considered  acceptable to use torture in questioning criminal suspects, and because he is a man of his time, Dee uses torture.  In Tony Hillerman’s mysteries, Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn are both Navaho policemen.  But in Leaphorn’s boyhood, Indian children were taken from their families to boarding schools, where their own language and culture were forbidden in a government effort to assimilate the Navahoes into American society.  As a result Leaphorn lacks emotional connection to traditional Navaho beliefs and looks on many of them as superstition.  Jim Chee grew up on the reservation.  He embraces his culture, and feels so strongly about it that he wants to be a shaman.  The difference in their boyhoods affects how the two think and how they approach their police work.  The traditional fear of the chindi, an evil spirit left after a person’s death, makes Chee reluctant to touch a corpse.  Leaphorn has no such qualms.  I want my characters, too, behaving in accordance with their own personalities and background, not mine.  My werewolves in Wilding Nights are a separate species from humans who by passing as human have survived the extinction suffered by other hominids such as the Neanderthals.  So while they live among humans, they wear masks, hiding their non-human attitudes, rituals, customs.  Taking the wolf form uses massive amounts of energy so they have equally massive appetites that astonish the unknowing humans they work with.  Their homes are built with walk-in restaurant-style refrigerators.

Like writing itself, there are as many ways to go about world-building as there are authors.  All of them correct when they work.  It is only wrong to skip doing it.  You risk ending up with that the South African romance...or a Star Trek novel I read, where the Vulcans came across as American Suburbanites.  Culture is so much a part of us that we tend to be unaware of its influence, and if a story’s background has not been fully worked out, our subconscious will likely fill the gaps with the only culture it knows...our own.  Which, as in the Star Trek book, may not work.  Or we can make erroneous assumptions.  The Colt Peacemaker and the Old West seem synonymous, but if we have a Civil War veteran heading west in 1866 packing the Colt, Western fans will flay us.  They know the Colt wasn’t manufactured until 1873.

Being a compulsive --- some would say anal --- organizer, I world-build by working through a checklist of fifty-plus culture-related categories.  A checklist I developed by reading a slew of anthropological studies and seeing what criteria the pros use to describe a culture.  Though I type my notes on a computer --- up to a page or so per category, using as many categories as necessary (fewer being necessary the closer I am to my own Here and Now) --- I print it out along with character biographies and make up a loose-leaf binder for easy reference while writing.  The binder also contains maps, sometimes floor plans of relevant buildings, often pictures of story locations if it has a real-life setting, and pictures of vehicles the characters drive.  In the case of an alien planet, I do sketches of animals and the aliens themselves.

It works well for me, but while other writers like and use my checklist, we agree that the tome I produce can be all wrong for another writer.  Leafing through one of my background books, science fiction writer Jack Williamson confided that when he tried something similar in his early writing days, by the time he finished putting so much effort into the background, he had no creative energy left for the book itself and never wrote it.  That is not a result we want.  Mystery writer Charlaine Harris awes me because she keeps the worlds and characters of her three Sookie Stackhouse, Aurora Teagarden, and Harper Connelly series in her head.  I know other writers who do, too.  More power to them.  They all amaze me.  Still other writers, for whom the writing process is one of discovering the story, say they make up background as they go along.  One told me that if she knew all about the book before she started, the story would be told and no longer interesting enough for her to write it down.  I wonder, though, if the subconscious of such writers isn’t at work madly hammering that background together beneath their awareness.  In any case, the method works for them...perhaps because they have the experience and skill to pull it off. 

Books written that way by young writers too often tend to read like the authors made it up as they went along.  Which may have been the case with the Star Trek novel.  I feel that at least in the beginning, a writer should consciously work out details about their story background.  Which does not have to be as involved or time consuming as my tomes.  Some note cards or a computer file equivalent may be sufficient.  Whatever it takes to help the author make his setting feel real and complete.

World-building does have a couple of pitfalls to watch out for.  Such as killing a book by becoming so engrossed in creating the background that it turns from a tool to an end in itself.  I always watch to make sure I’m not tinkering with background beyond alterations necessary to make the plot and characters work.  After doing extensive background research on a subject, say San Francisco’s 1906 Great Quake and Fire, it is a huge temptation to cram all those fascinating facts into the story and not “waste” them.  Which is why I have a picture of an iceberg prominently displayed on my bulletin board, reminding me to use only what the story needs.

Because the story is the point of it all, and world-building, however important, whether a game or labor, accomplished by whatever method, must in the end do just one thing...provide the characters with a solid and suitable place for telling their tale.


Lee Killough’s checklist is available as a chapbook Checking On Culture, an aid to building story backgrounds, from Yard Dog Press

Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë

The Hound of the Baskervilles, Arthur Conan Doyle

Wilding Nights, Lee Killough, Meisha Merlin Publishing, ISBN 189206571-1

Killer Karma, Lee Killough, Meisha Merlin Publishing, ISBN 1-56222-006-1