My journey through the world of writing and everything that lies in between…

Bringing a world to life. That’s our job as writers–not only must we convey the actual story and develop 3-D characters, we must also bring to life our story’s world: whether that’s a contemporary or historical setting, set around the corner or on the other side of the world, or in a different realm entirely. You have to know about the clothes, technology, food, entertainment…these are all things that help breathe life into a book.

 Culture plays a huge part in developing our characters. I know I have to be incredibly diligent in being accurate to the Japanese culture instead of putting my own Western spin on it. It’s a different frame of mind that I have to be in to write that way. It’s so easy to slip back in to my 21st century Western worldview and it’s something I always have to be vigilent against.

 But this applies to any setting out side of our own, whether it’s a different time, place or a combination of both. We have to take off the 21st century goggles and accept certain aspects of a culture even if that means it calls for racial segregation or discrimination, or subjugation of women. We can’t put our worldview in a time or place where it doesn’t really belong. This is one the biggest issues I will find when I read a historical novel–someone who is “politically correct” in a time or place when that just wasn’t part of life.

This isn’t as much of a problem if you are writing a fantasy, but you have to know the ideals and mindset of the world. Readers are very quick at picking up contradictions. You also have to make sure the reader knows how the world is organized. I don’t often read fantasy, except for chapter segments I’m critiquing for my critique group. One of the biggest problems that I find (and that other members find too) is not knowing enough about the actual workings of the world. Sometimes as writers we often forget that the reader doesn’t have the all-access pass 🙂 This is why I can never write straight fantasy–I’m not creative enough to develop an entire world from scratch!

For me, much of my research, is done through books and online. Finding books can be frustrating when the library doesn’t have it (or it takes a month for the book to ship from another library…).

But then there’s the Internet 🙂 While I have to be careful to double check anything I read online, I’ve still found it helpful especially in the area of travel. I’m a very visual person, so I’ve been able to travel to Japan through pictures and videos and able to see areas that I have in my book virtually.  Of course it doesn’t beat actually traveling there, knowing the language and spending time amongst the people, but for now, it’s the best I have. Perhaps someday I’ll even learn enough Japanese to be able to read all the documents I’ve been missing out on 😛

Of course, it’s easy to want to put in your book all the hours of painstaking research. But you want to be careful not to overwhelm readers. It can be a tricky balancing game. Too much and the readers will get bored; too little and the world will feel like nothing more than a cheap cardboard cut out on a third rate stage.

How do you go about creating your story’s world?

Comments on: "Developing a Vivid Story World" (9)

  1. You know, Frank Herbert’s novels were filled with information that the reader would be clueless about unless they jump back and forth between the story and the glossary. Research is awesome, but overload is not, as you said.

  2. This is mostly why I stick to contemporaries. However, my historical was set in a different state. For that I looked at pics and read descriptions. I didn’t look up scents though, which would’ve been a good idea.
    I read mostly historical romance and don’t usually notice a different worldview. But it’s hard for me to read things about slavery, esp. if the MC has slaves. There’s an immediate disliking for that in me.
    Interesting post. I have a feeling I need to pay more attention to being true to the world in my story.

  3. There can certainly be a fine line between too little and too much when it comes to the details of worlds in which we set our stories.
    As a writer, there is a lot more that I know that is not included in the novels, and I think that’s the way it should be, because as a reader, I know how easy it is to get bogged down in detail and information which isn’t really important for the story.
    Great post 🙂

  4. Caitlynn said:

    I think part of the struggle with fantasy is that you have to develop a whole world with cultures, history, and other little intricacies, but then you have to tell yourself that — even in spite of all the effort it took to build it — you can only share *just enough.* I imagine there’s also a similar difficulty with historical fiction; you have to learn all that history, culture, etc., while only being able to share so much. In either case, it’s hard to put so much effort into something without being able to show it all off.

  5. For historical authenticity, I’m an impurist. I do believe in creating the authentic feel through details and attitudes and setting as much as possible, but no matter what, you imbue the sensibility of your own modern time period into what you write. You can’t physically transport yourself into being a person of the last century or of a thousand years ago. And that’s not a bad thing.

    In movies, period costumes are always a mix of historical detail with modern sensibility. When Shakespeare wrote his historical plays, he was influenced by the politics and opinions of his own age. So I don’t fight it too hard.

    I stole this from Project Runway – All you can offer is your unique point of view. 🙂

  6. Great question, Dara. It is hard. I have a friend who wanted so badly to make her 19th century heroine a 20th century gal and it just did not work. Her heroine came off as a slut (even though she never slept with anyone in the book!) and that was hard for my friend to accept. Let your character deal with the world they live in and not yours. You might not find yourself addressing those things you wanted to discuss, but your characters will thank you for their reality nonetheless.
    I imagine I do everything everyone else does for research: Watch movies from my setting – even if they’re not period movies, they still help me keep the flavor and cadence of China in my head. I read everything from period research to Pearl S. Buck, Amy Tan and Lisa See. I’ve got music I listen to (not ALWAYS Chinese), language cds and friendships I’ve made. All of these things can help me remain where I need to be. They’ve done it now for over 10 years. 🙂

  7. mine’s more reality-based, but right now I’m writing a story, using San Francisco as my idea. nice to be able to skirt around truth, but usually I try to base settings in as much fact as I can harness.

    however… this is fiction. 🙂 thank goodness!! taking liberties great or small, depending on just how fictional a place is. the last novel took place in a completely made-up small town in Oregon, with a surrounding real city used as well. just needed to double check counties, etc, for which the internet is ever so handy!

  8. I write fantasy and even though there’s no historical reference to my world, I still have to create a believable world with rules and consistency.

    I love historical fiction but when I tried to write it found it hard. I’ll have to save that for when I’m a better writer.

  9. Creating a new world within which the reader can become immersed that is both credible and consistent, while being different, is much the same as any creative thinking project.

    When I started the Randolph’s Challenge trilogy, of which Book One – The Pendulum Swings has just been published, I began with a map of Alusia (the fictional country in which the action takes place). Now, writing book two I have a plan of the Castle where Randolph lives and a map of The Western Realm, of which Alusia is one country. These have been invaluable in making the story coherent and have enabled it to ‘grow legs’ and write much of itself, within the context of the overall story plan.

    The other thing that I had to do quite a bit of in book one, and I am also now starting to do in Book Two, it backwriting – as a situation develops it is often necessary to go back and create something to support that event. In this way I’ve found the new world soon becomes a very believable, even if different, place. In fanatasy I’ve adopted the philosophy that nothing is impossible, but it is important to know how everything happens and be able to explain the rationale behind it – however fantastic that rationale may be.

    Check it out yourself – Randolph’s Challenge Book One – The Pendulum Swings (

    Chris Warren
    Author and Freelance Writer
    Randolph’s Challenge Book One – The Pendulum Swings

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