World Building to Spec: It’s in the Details

by Kay Springsteen

The term world building has typically been associated with fantasy and science fiction. But it’s an art that can and should be applied to any genre of fiction. You can have the most loveable characters, the most exciting plot, but if you place these in a setting that has been weakly researched, you’re not going to hit the mark of greatness with your story. Building the setting is important in every work of fiction, from fantasy to historical, and in a contemporary romance. You want your story to be filled with the little details that allow readers to identify. If your hero grew up in public housing in Annapolis, Maryland, you’d better use names like Robinwood and New Town 20 because your readers in Annapolis are going to expect it. You wouldn’t mislabel or misspell a brand name. Give your heroine a Chevrolet Nova as her first car, and she isn’t likely to call it a Chevie, but she will call it a Chevy. And yes, it sounds the same, but in this case, the details are in the spelling.

I am a Detroit native, so when I read a book or watch a movie or TV show set there, E. Jefferson had better run along the Detroit River, the State Fair Grounds had better be located at 8 Mile and Woodward, and the southern suburbs of the city had better be referred to as Downriver. I love the music of Journey, especially Don’t Stop Believing. But when this song came out, the joke in my home city came from these words: “Just a city boy…Born and raised in South Detroit.” Why? Because basically there is no South Detroit. The Detroit River curves west just at the hub of the city, and south of that is the US/Canadian border. Of course, Detroit sprawls to the south and west, but I suppose “…born and raised in southwest Detroit” didn’t really fit into the song. So maybe Neal Schon, Jonathan Cain, and Steve Perry thought no one would notice or it wouldn’t matter. We noticed. It mattered.

When Independence Day hit the Silver Screen in 1996, after the major U.S. cities were destroyed, the military is shown briefing the President with a map projecting the next strikes, at one point zeroing in on Michigan. Did Detroit make it to the big time? Sadly, it did not. Apparently, the aliens felt Kalamazoo was a better target than The Motor City. Irrelevant details? Certainly. The advance to the story was a map showing the existence of secondary targets rather than what those targets happened to be. But they were details that got a lot of notice, and not all of it good. After all, unless your story calls for a drastic change in venue, you aren’t going to place the Capital of the United States in Kansas.

How can you get around the potential for offending someone in a big city and losing credibility? As a starting point, conduct your best research. Learn street names and directions, and find out the names and locations of area attractions and landmarks. So, what if you make a fictional city, say Metropolis of Superman fame? That’s certainly a possibility. But you’d better build that world even better than you research the real one. Readers are going to recall the details, often at the most inopportune times. And it’s not only the geography you need to be mindful of. Consider a story in which you show the heroine going upstairs alone to retire every night. If the hero then carries her down the hall from the living room to her bedroom, you’re painting a very different picture. Did the second floor magically collapse and morph into the first? Did you say your hero’s bedroom window has a western view and then have a morning-after scene with the sun streaming through in the morning to wake the heroine? Such discrepancies can ruin a great story. If your heroine peeks through a window in her front door, you can’t have her cowering behind a solid steel door later in the novel without first calling a handyman to install a new door.

And this is where world building comes in. Know the geographic area you’re writing about. Look at maps, find pictures and travel brochures. Contact people who live there. In this day of the Internet, it’s not at all difficult to reach out to people on the other side of the world and you’d be amazed how many folks will be thrilled to help you figure out the details of the geographic area, or give you pointers on the language of the region. When it comes to the smaller locations, the kitchen, even the bedroom, develop a firm picture in your mind. You don’t have to go crazy with describing the setting to the point where you kill the power of the scene you’re crafting. But it’s a darned good idea to have a visual of the layout in your head (or even on paper) so you can throw in little details every now and then to help paint the picture. A setting map will help you keep those details consistent. It doesn’t have to be elaborate, just draw it or write it down or think about it and visualize it so you can translate that into your writing.

I tend to build an extensive world and then I deliberately do not describe it. I simply drop my characters into that world and have them move through it, showing little touches along the way to help the reader see what the character sees. But because I’ve taken time to build it in my head, I see it as I’m writing it, and I can add the details that keep a scene interesting without overpowering the readers. For instance in Lifeline Echoes, created a fictional small town in Western Wyoming. I placed the local pharmacy just up the street from the feed store, but I didn’t present it to the reader as, “The drug store was three doors north.” I showed my heroine pointing to the drug store from the parking lot of the feed and grain, and asking to be taken to the pharmacy.

Whether you research an existing world and build it into your story, or if you create an all new world specific to what you’re writing, the trick is to build it well enough that you could magically step into it and know exactly where you are and what language you’ll be speaking to be understood by the natives.

Question for writers: How do you keep your little details straight?

Question for readers: What details do you notice?


11 responses to “World Building to Spec: It’s in the Details

  1. Great post, Kay. I hate it when things don’t come together or make sense and prefer to create my own towns. It can be a chore to keep things straight, so I often go back and re-read my story with that in mind. I have a WIP that takes place in NYC, with many scenes in Central Park, my own stomping ground. Still, I am walking paths and making mental notes so that my story can be accurate. Don’t we owe that to our readers?I think so.

  2. Good morning Kay! Interesting points I try to stay away from real towns and directions for the reasons you mentioned. Have a great day!

  3. Jennifer Comeaux

    Great post! I love doing research on setting. My heroine is from Boston and part of my WIP takes place there, so when I was there last week, I explored many areas of the city that are important to my story. I’d been to some of them before, but it always helps to visit repeatedly to get a real sense of the place.

  4. five star post – kay has really nailed the specifics about how to world build.

  5. I usually write paranormal or fantasy and therefore am the creator of my own realm. However, really good notes are imperative. I also write contemporary and have to do research often times for other countries, states or cultures. When doing so I keep a list of sites I visit to refer later.

    Great post Kate…thanks for sending me.

  6. What a great article, Kate. Every author builds a new world with her characters with every new book she writes.

  7. Thanks for sharing. This is one reason why I like fictional towns. It’s hard to describe a place you’ve never visited.

  8. the1940mysterywriter

    It’s unfortunate, but the lovely illustrations are atop the text and I’m having difficulty reading these articles. (Is that the Firefox browser? Not certain how these things work.) What I can read makes excellent sense. Thanks, Kay!
    Gunnar Grey

    • It might be your screen size. I know that depending on which computer I use (big screen or small), websites seem to run together, so you might try changing your resolution to make it bigger. I’ll look into it on my end, but I’m pretty sure that’s it.

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