Sunday, August 9, 2009

Zut alors! Actual post about writing!

I realized, looking over the blog archives for the last month and a half make it look like I've forsaken writing for watching movie trailers and hobnobbing with minor celebrities. 

Far from it.  

In the interest of etiquette (and because I'm superstitious and afraid of jinxing things) let's just say that a window closed on one project but a door may have opened on another. So a quick juggling of priorities is in order for the next month or so. Trust me, it's all good.

In the meantime, I want to talk about something called world building. That is, creating the fictional world your characters live in. I used to think this term was only applicable to science fiction or fantasy writers and while it is of great importance to these writers as they build Middle Earth or Westeros, it's also important on worlds that are part of the everyday U.S. geography and culture. For example, Stephen King's town of Castle Rock.

I began to realize the importance of world building as I worked on my mystery Undertow. The novel is set in a town of my own invention, a California beach city that's also home to a small university. The town, Los Cielos (Spanish for "the clouds") had appeared in an earlier "trunk" novel and will probably be the setting of at least one more future book. As I started not just seeing the town through different characters' eyes but taking the characters about all their business in the town, I began to understand the importance of setting, and of creating a believable place for these people. 

It's important not just to give the reader a sense of where all this is taking place, but it gives the characters more room to breathe and behave like actual people. As I thought more and more about this location I thought about what the characters liked and didn't like about the town. For example, where did they go for dinner? That could vary a lot - so I understood that I needed to create different places for the characters to go. So there's the fancy place you go for a romantic evening out, the funky place on the pier that serves everything deep-fried, the awesome tavern.  Likewise, depending on my characters' circumstances I got to take them to different parts of the town - the swank place where the rich people live, the houses rented to the university students, even the sad apartment building where people who've just gotten divorced or otherwise had their lives upended live (think of the apartment inhabited by Paul Giamatti's character in Sideways).  Questions that have to be asked, depending on the story's needs, are: What are the town's employment opportunities besides the university? What's the crime rate like?  The challenge is to make even a great place to live not too idyllic and twee, or it will lose its believability.

It sounds like work but it's surprisingly fun. And I'm really looking forward to world-building in a future book - where I get to build a seedy amusement park. Now that will be a thrill!

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