Yesterday, I put forward the not-too-original idea that worldbuilding is about both making choices and understanding what those choices mean, and shared a couple of resources on building speculative, sci-fi, or fantasy worlds.
But what if your project is set in the real world?
Instead of writing some big ol’ essay explaining why real-world worldbuilding is just as important as SF&F worldbuilding, I’m going to give you some examples of what I’m thinking about, as I worldbuild my NEXT BOOK.
Today, I’ll focus on setting.
I already know that NEXT BOOK takes place in the Midwest, but not in the rural, pre-internet Midwest of The Biographies of Ordinary People. Nor does it take place in a small town.
Instead, we’re in what you might call a “flyover city,” and I’m using that term for a reason: the city itself has everything you might need, there’s your mall and your Walmart and multiple grocery stores, and a local sports team and a community theater and a small college and plenty of jobs and etc. etc. etc.*
But once you’re there, it’s hard to get out. There’s a municipal airport, if you want to take a terrifying prop plane to Chicago before transferring onto a commercial jet. There’s no Amtrak or Greyhound. You could get in a car and drive for a few hours, but that would only get you to another city just like this one.
Why am I specifically choosing this setting? Because the tension between “being part of a community” and “being stuck in this community,” which I am not going to argue is the central tension of the Midwest but is probably one of the top five, is an important element of this book.
As is the feeling of being leftover, flown-over, etc.
The question then becomes: do I set the story in a specific city?
ADVANTAGES: a stronger sense of place, can reference actual landmarks, won’t get stuck in the “whoops, I put the municipal airport on the east side of town but that doesn’t make sense with where I put the college” thing.
ADDITIONAL ADVANTAGES: a stronger sense of reality. While I was able to get away with creating “Kirkland” for Biographies because tiny rural towns like Kirkland are a dime-a-dozen and the reader could easily imagine that this fictitious town actually existed, I’m not sure whether I could do the same thing with a city of about 100,000 people.
First because we already know these cities exist, even if it’s only in the “I was in The Music Man in high school so I am aware of a place called Davenport, Iowa” sense, so making up a new city out of whole cloth would be, like… where would I place it? Would I need to create a fictitious manufacturer that had an outpost over there, ’cause these days it’s easy to see where General Mills and Purina and etc. are set up and I’d probably get in trouble for implying that they also have factories in this fake city? Would I need to create a fake airport code for the municipal airport?
Second because it would feel kind of ridiculous to be all “here’s Illinoisapolis, home of Illinoisapolis University and Steer Motors, please believe that it’s real.”
DISADVANTAGES: you can set all kinds of stories in New York or Los Angeles or Seattle because those places are large enough that anything can happen. Plus, enough stories are set in those areas that they kind of cancel each other out, in the “well, if this one character describes this monument as unattractive, we can’t really take it personally” sense.
Once you get into a place that feels more like a community where you stay than a setting for multiple potential adventures,** well… people within that community are going to know what you wrote about what the city feels like, and what your characters think of the architecture, and etc. Plus, if there aren’t as many stories set in that particular area, you run the risk of yours being one of the few windows into that world, meaning other people might form opinions about the place based on your book, and if you write anything negative (even if you already wrote 100 positive things first)…
Well, you see where I’m going with this.***
I’m going to stop here because I need to move on to Billfold work; tomorrow I’ll explore what it means to set a real-world story in a general time period vs. a specific time period.
I should note that just writing this post helped me clarify more of what NEXT BOOK needed to focus on and why those particular setting elements were important to the characters and their story, so thanks for reading. ❤️
*If you are thinking “why does it matter that this place has a mall and jobs and stuff,” keep in mind that I grew up in a town that had none of that.
**Is this also what one of the characters in NEXT BOOK might think about her current community? Will her opinion change during the course of the story? HMMMMMMMM…
***You could also read between the lines and ask me “well, why don’t you set the book in a real mid-sized Midwestern city where you do not currently live?” My answer is “because I don’t know what that city FEELS LIKE, and I don’t have the time or money to embed myself there, so I’m either going to write about where I am right now**** or make up a city that is remarkably like where I am right now except it has a fake name.”
****Because people often write books to tackle the questions and feelings they are experiencing right now, I’ll link to yet another Maggie Stiefvater blog post that explains it better than I could since I haven’t given you a reading assignment for today LOL.