Worldbuilding When Writing A Novel, by Lish McBride
I can show you the world. For the people who have seen Aladdin, the song A Whole New World will be stuck in your head for the rest of the day. Ha!
Worldbuilding: it’s important. Though it is most evident in fantasy fiction, it’s just as important in contemporary realistic fiction. It’s just that in contemporary realistic fiction, you can lean on the general shared knowledge of readers. You don’t have to describe the bank that your character walks into with excruciating detail. It’s a bank. We’ve all been in banks. If your character walks into their favorite coffee shop, you better describe it. That coffee shop is part of your character’s world and you have to make it reflect what you want the reader to see. If your character is a straight-laced, prim, bookish type and her favorite hangout is a biker bar, it’s going to tell me a lot about their personality and the world they inhabit.
In fantasy fiction, people are really examining it because half the reason they’re tuning in is because they like the world the character inhabits, so you better spend time on it. Half the reason we all liked Harry Potter so much was because the world was clear. You knew what wizards and witches ate, drank, wore, where they shopped, their favorite sport and a lot of other cultural trappings. The readers loved Harry, sure, but they also liked imagining themselves in his surroundings (perhaps minus Voldemort).
Urban fantasy fiction is a hodgepodge of both and it has strange complications because you can’t quite make all of it up. Your character might have magical powers, but if he or she walks into a bank that bank better act like a bank. Which means you have to put in the imagination work, but you also have to do the leg work of researching your stuff.
For example, many years ago I was helping a student with her fantasy novel. At some point, her character had to go to the hospital. From the second her character entered the hospital until the time she left nothing happened like it actually would in a hospital. My dad is a doctor and my mom is a nurse. I grew up in hospitals and clinics, so every time she made a goof, it screamed at me. Readers have to be able to suspend belief when they’re reading, and if you’re writing urban fantasy and getting things wrong that they can identify (and really, most people have at some point entered a hospital) well then they’re not going to buy into your magic-y bits.
When I asked the student what was going on, she said she didn’t know how hospitals worked, so she just made it up. After I was done banging my head on my desk, I told her that’s exactly why you do research. I’m lucky. If I ever have a medical question, I can call my mom. Not everyone is going to have that kind of go-to resource. However, there’s this thing called “the internet” and these other things called “libraries”. Both are quite useful to writers. Don’t know how a hospital works? Go find a professional and ask them – nicely. Can’t find a professional locally? Reach out through friends, social media, etc. and find a professional. Ask them questions. Have them read your stuff and point out the things you’re getting wrong.
If that doesn’t work, go to the library. If you’re not good at tracking things down, ASK A LIBRARIAN. They are professionals at finding relevant books and data. They went to school for it. I know research can be time consuming, but it’s worth it. You can’t get everything right all the time, but you should try. However, don’t let it get in the way of you getting words down on the page. Some people hide behind research as a way to get out of doing any actual writing. If you need to get some pages down but haven’t caught up on your research yet, write a note to yourself in the text. Something like, “Insert hospital scene here” and then go back when you’ve done your homework.
Homework: Read an article, book or interview, or watch a documentary or podcast, or something like that in an area that you are curious about and that pertains to something you’re writing or want to write. Take notes. What can you use to deepen your story and world? What’s cool but won’t fit?
Lish McBride’s author website: www.lishmcbride.com
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