Building Your Fictional World

Whether it’s done through intergalactic forces, Minecraft, or writing, building your own world can be a little tough.

The pictures here are of one of two main locations for my current work in progress – London, England. I’ve not yet set foot in this city. For that matter, I haven’t ever visited the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, which is the other main setting for my book.

There are usually two main situations that you find yourself in putting together a work of fiction regarding setting. You could find yourself creating a totally fictional world, just as with Lord of the Rings and A Song Of Ice And Fire. The immediate advantage to this situation is that you are able to start everything from scratch, without having to refer to existing locations and worlds. You are free to make your world pretty much anything that you want it to be.

Of course, as anyone who’s tried to build King’s Landing in Minecraft would tell you, that’s a lot of work. However, the cool thing about this is that you can take ingredients from the cultures and histories of our world and remix that in another world. The world of Westeros has echos of the histories, cultures, and myths of the Roman Empire, England during the War of the Roses, the Vikings, the Mongols of Genghis Khan’s time, Arabic Spain, and assorted medieval histories.

In my opinion, probably the most difficult world-building to do is putting a fictional location into (on top of? I’m not sure of the nomenclature) a real-life environment you aren’t familiar with. William Faulkner and Stephen King, among many others, have done with their fictional worlds, even though they look very similar to worlds they were familiar with. The advantage to this is that you have a world that may seem familiar to people, and yet different from the real locations. The latter can be an advantage since there can be all sorts of entanglements in using real places/people/entities/etc.

In the first two books I wrote, I set them in eastern Iowa, where I’ve lived for the vast majority of my life. My most recent book which I did and am in the process of finally revising, The Holy Fool, was set in Chicago during 2008. I was familiar with the city, having visited there frequently throughout my life, although I was never a resident except for a very brief time as a small child.

However, one of the difficulties with this technique is trying to make something seem as close to the real thing as possible without seeming too unreal, too unauthentic, according to the people who live in those areas the fictional world takes place in. You have to know something about the place that you are borrowing for your fiction.

In this new project, that is a difficulty for me. I only briefly lived in Texas when I was a boy (and in the Galveston area to boot), and I’ve never lived in or even visited London. How am I supposed to create a realistic world without spending five years trying to research things, like Tom Clancy did with Hunt For Red October?

Luckily, it’s a lot easier to research things than it was back in the days where my equivalent to Wikipedia was a massive encyclopedia set in my basement. Four items help with my research:

  1. Wikipedia – obviously. However, even if the main article doesn’t give you enough in-depth information, the references and external links to each article often lead you to that kind of information. It’s definitely my first stop when I’m looking into something new.
  2. Tourism guides – you would not believe how much information you can find out from these things. Guides to Chicago were one way that I determined what neighborhoods my characters would live in and where my fictional newspaper offices would be located. You don’t have to buy these – any local library has these in bulk. My favorites are Rough Guide and any “off the beaten path” themed ones.
  3. Talking with other people – I’ve signed up with a massive amount of writer’s groups on Facebooks. Every so often, I’ll ask them questions about certain items I’m interested in adding to my work. Regarding this fictional club, I was trying to think of names that would be similar but not identical to any placenames in London. I got some good feedback from people, especially some British residents, who helped me figure out what I might not exactly be doing right. I think I have a place name (and club name) that would fit the East London area, where I want to locate the club.
  4. Just reading a whole bunch. When I first got involved with soccer fandom during the 1994 World Cup, I had no background knowledge of the game whatsoever. The only reason why I’m feeling comfortable with this book is because I’ve read everything from popular soccer histories, news coverage about the sport, and scholarly books including Inverting the Pyramid and Soccernomics.

I have to admit, however, that I get a bit in-depth on other items with my stories. With The Holy Fool, I put together a timeline and family tree of the founding family of my fictional newspaper, the Chicago Journal (not to be confused with other defunct papers of that name). On the new project, I went so far as to design a club crest and kits for the team, as well as a rough history for the club.

Whether it will be convincing for Londoners and/or fans of football is another issue. I hope it is, or, at least, it’s authentic enough not to make them laugh. However, I guess if Toto can write a song about Africa without visiting the place that impresses Africans, I figure that I can manage this.


3 thoughts on “Building Your Fictional World

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