The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, Chapter 9: Worldbuilding. It is part of a multipart series. For Part One, click here. For Part Two, click here. For Part Three,click here.
Designing a Past and Future
I remember a television program I once saw; a rerun, made years before. I must have been seven or eight, too young to understand it. It was the sort of thing my mother liked to watch: historical, educational…The program was a documentary, about one of those wars. They interviewed people and showed clips from films of the time, black and white, and still photos…The inter-views with people still alive then were in color. The one I remember best was with a woman who had been the mistress of a man who had supervised one of the camps where they put the Jews, before they killed them. In ovens, my mother said; but there weren’t any pictures of the ovens, so I got some confused notion that these deaths had taken place in kitchens. There is something especially terrifying to a child in that idea. Ovens mean cooking, and cooking comes before eating. I thought these people had been eaten. Which in a way I suppose they had been. (The Handmaiden’s Tale, Margaret Atwood)
Last, but far from least, you will need to give thought to the past and future of your world, anticipating both how they got where they are but where they are going and what future issues may arrive as the result of present events, as well as what issues in the present can be traced to events in the past. How do people in the present interact with this history? How knowledgeable are they of it? How misinformed? As you imagine a future and past, you must consider what advances have been made and how they have been made, what people are still seeking to do, what problems remain unsolved, etc. The implications of such choices always affect your story and world in key ways. In many novels, the past will be way more important to explore than the future, as you consider how they characters became who they are and what haunts them, what changed them, what drives them. But in others, the future can be a rich source as well: the drive to succeed, their goals, their hopes, their plans—these can all be powerful factors that shape characters and their motives and drive their actions.
It is important to not get so focused on technology and science that you forgot social issues. These, more than anything, will be key to creating a realistic possible future. Technological and scientific advances are great but they have costs and implications. What if these technologies empower only a few and are unavailable to the many? What if they bring wealth to the few and leave the many poorer? How will your future deal with issues of racism, equal rights, poverty, hunger, education, and income equality? How will your world be better than or a better version of ours and how will it be worse? Regardless of what you choice, these must be addressed and presented in believable ways.
It is important to think of both what is gained and what is left behind or lost. What is erased and what is invented. And also where do these ideas, concepts, and possibilities lead—new dangers, new crimes, new threats? Or all positives? Rarely are there all positives and no negatives, remember. Are there ecological nightmares? Totalitarian governments? What of population growth? What of unemployment? And so on. New pitfalls will arise as old ones are erased. Which will stay erased forever and which will come back and how? No future is perfect, and to be believable, yours cannot be either. So with every advancement, there will be setbacks or problems. And you should deal with both and allow them to drive your story, to inspire conflict on which drama thrives.
It would be impossible for me or anyone else to cover everything or anything in any kind of depth in a book like this, but I hope I have provided a decent guide and overview for how to think through world building, how one set of concerns is connected to others, and many of the types of things you will need to consider as you create worlds. I didn’t even cover everything on Lee Killough’s checklist, but that, and this chapter, should act as decent guides in creating your world.
Closely connected to world building, however, is research to not only find these things but make them function logically and workably as well as learning the terminology and more you need to describe them intelligently, convincing readers you actually did your homework.
I know what you’re thinking: “Research is a dirty word. I hate research.” A lot of writers seem to have that attitude. I had it myself for years. After four years of college and three of grad school, I thought I was done with all that, and happily so. I wrote five novels and barely did any research, but then I had a project I couldn’t do right without it, and my attitude has changed. Research can be extremely rewarding if you are able to employ it to make your manuscript better and your story more authentic. And there are many options and sources to choose from that will allow most of you to find a path of least resistance—or at least, the least discomfort and frustration .
In On Writing, Stephen King says of research: “Research is back story, and the key word in back story is back…What I’m looking for is nothing but a touch of verisimilitude, like the handful of spices you chuck into a good spaghetti sauce to really finish her off. That sense of reality is particularly important in any work of fiction, but…particularly important in a story dealing with the paranormal or abnormal. Also, enough details—assuming they are the correct ones—can stem the tide of letters from picky-ass readers who apparently live to tell writers they messed up…When you step away from the ‘write what you know rule,’ research becomes inevitable, and it can add a lot to your story…(Just remember) the story always comes first.”
Certainly one of the things that makes research so daunting is that to use it well, some must be done before you write. Many of us have a tendency to want to put it off and get to the fun part, pausing only to research when we absolutely have to. After all, you never know how much you’ll need until you start writing. The problem with this is that underlying thought processes uninformed by research will lead to writing that is ignorant of key elements and unprepared to ask key questions that research brings out which will inform your work—how you construct characters, world, and story. With research in your head, you begin employing its implications from word one. Without it, you can’t possible do so. And I think if you wait until you need it, not only will your work be weaker, but you set yourself up for the need to do a lot more rewriting and reworking than you would have to do if you started with at least some research completed before you write.
So how do you know where to begin and when you’ve done enough to write? This is a question only you can answer and one that depends on many factors: the needs of your world building, characterization, plot, settings, etc. Some of those needs get discovered as you write, especially if you are a discovery writer who does not plan much out in advance. Writers who start with an outline will have an easier time identifying key areas of ignorance in advance so they can focus their research and bone up their knowledge on those topics. Some writers also assume that if you are making up a secondary world, you can do less research. I did nineteen drafts of my first novel before it came to print. It featured secondary worlds—a whole solar system I invented. And about seventeen of those were to deal with issues related to lack of research at least in part. The thing is that readers expect your secondary worlds to follow the same logic as Earth and the existing worlds we know of: the laws of science, reason, logic, etc. There are things that just are and if you break those expectations without really knowing what you are doing and justifying it well, then readers will lose confidence in you as a truthteller and narrator, and that will hurt their opinion of your story.
So, no matter what kind of story you write, you need some research. I actually think novels set in contemporary times require a bit less if you are writing about a world and places you are intimately familiar with, but it always depends on the story. Ultimately, the believability of your story and the author-reader contract depend upon your knowledge, so research is key to writing convincingly, whether you make most things up or not.
That is why research is essential. And as you see from Chapter 9, world building is filled with questions to answer, and in most cases, the only way to answer them is to do research. Fortunately, all of us live in the age of the internet. The internet will undoubtedly be your greatest research friend. True, there are a lot of lies on the internet and articles lacking good fact checking. You will have to be discerning about your sources. But for quick, basic information on almost any topic, the internet is a quick, easy solution, and often what you learn there will lay the groundwork that informs the rest of your research—pointing you to sources and topics, helping define what questions you need to address, etc. So no matter what else your research involves, expect to start with the internet.
There are two other ways you can research that will come in handy for various stories: library research and real world experience. Libraries are available everywhere, so I probably don’t have to explain those. Most offer free or cheap memberships to locals and have research librarians on staff who can help you locate materials, borrow books on interlibrary loan, etc. Make use of them. That is what they are there for, and they enjoy helping people like you. It is their calling. Real life experience can happen several ways: interviews, scouting (going to locations and talking to people and taking pictures and notes), and consulting experts. One of the funnest and most helpful research tools I employed on my police procedural series were ride alongs with police. These are free and require only some paperwork and a background check. They are amazingly fascinating and eye opening. Many government agencies have liaisons assigned specifically to help people doing research about their agencies. The FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) is one example. Police departments and many others have media people. Often private businesses and industries have them as well. If you are polite, and patient, you may well get their assistance. You have only to ask. Interviews, of course, are a bit more complex but also can be arranged. Observing you can often do without permission on public lands and locations. Just take a notebook and your eyes and get to work.
Some of you will be able to do the bulk of your research online or in books and never need to go out and make time for real world experience. This is okay, of course. Do what your stories require. But real world experience is indeed an option and can be very fulfilling, as I said. Most of you will need to do some combination of the three. Especially when it comes to vocabulary and technical knowledge on various topics like medicine, criminal justice, law, science, technology, etc. Talking the talk authentically will be necessary for readers to believe your story. So learning the terminology will be a necessary part of research. You can’t wing it, sorry. Not if you want to write a book that feels true and realistic. Fortunately, there are plenty of books on most topics providing such knowledge and most are widely available. But how do you find sources?
That will be the subject of next week’s post…