There must be a million ways to dream up your story’s setting and make it come alive. It’s useful to ask straightforward and direct questions about the climate and technology your characters deal with (like the ones in last week’s post). But sometimes it’s better—and fun—to sneak up on your mind and approach it from a different angle.
As we continue to slide toward the month of NaNoWriMo, try some of these unconventional ways of learning about the place where your story occurs. I’m going to challenge you a bit here. Experiment with the ones you feel drawn to, but also the ones you resist. Remember Steven Pressfield’s advice here: “We can navigate by Resistance, letting it guide us to that calling or action that we must follow before others.”
1. Be a Tour Guide
You probably have a clear vision in your mind of what your world is like, but how do you begin to convey that vision to your reader? Practice by becoming a tour guide within your fictional world. Here are several options to help you find your way.
- You are a realtor in your locale and need to share information with potential buyers who must move there for work. Assume they know nothing about the place. Draft an email to your prospective clients. Consider how will you highlight the positive aspects and minimize the not-so-pleasant elements.
- One of your characters has just arrived in your setting. She writes a letter to her parents describing what she has encountered so far. Experiment with different purposes: At first, she wants to reassure them. Then she wants attention.
- Imagine that you are a travel writer visiting your setting. Write a blog post that you might submit to a travel magazine or website. Be sure to include accommodations, food, entertainment, means of arriving, and getting around once you’re there.
- You are a journalist who reports for the equivalent of the New York Times, The Guardian, The Atlantic, or People Magazine. You are on location in your setting covering a significant event. Draft a dispatch to tell the viewers or readers what you’ve found.
- You are a student returning to school in the fall, and your teacher has instructed the class to write about how you spent your summer vacation. Write about the trip your parents made you take to the setting of your story. Were you pleasantly surprised, genuinely horrified, or something in between?
2. Interview Your Characters
Get to know how your characters feel about their world. Create a survey for them to answer. You can use these questions to get started:
- Where do you currently live?
- What is the population of your city or town?
- How long have you lived there?
- What kind of home do you live in? Is this typical for the region? Is housing affordable?
- What drives the economy where you live?
- How do people spend their time off? What do they do for entertainment? What are the cultural offerings available?
- Is public transportation available? Do you use it?
- What are the taxes like in your region? How are they enforced? Are people generally content to pay them?
- What is your biggest complaint about where you live? Your favorite perk?
3. A Day in the Life
Any society you might encounter is made up of different income and social groups, and people observe the boundaries between them strictly or not. Consider how this is in your world by freewriting (writing longhand or typing without stopping or censoring yourself) for ten or fifteen minutes on these two topics:
- Describe a day in the life of someone who inhabits the upper echelons of society.
- Now describe a day in the life of a common person.
Review what you’ve written and consider the following questions:
- What determines where people fall in the hierarchy? Family, gender, money, government, religion, intelligence?
- Are there multiple levels within the upper and lower classes?
- Consider the advantages and disadvantages for each group. For example, people who are wealthy could have the normal advantages wealth brings, but perhaps strict social codes make certain pursuits off limits to them.
- How do people treat others from another rung of the social ladder?
- Is upward mobility a possibility? How often do people fall out of the upper class?
4. Dr. Frankenstein’s Monster
When building a fictional world, one task that you may find fun or daunting is creating new creatures to dwell within it. Do ten or fifteen minutes of freewriting about the creature you want to build. Then consider these questions:
- What are the physical qualities you want this being to possess? Consider size, body covering, and mobility. Think about the eyes, nose, mouth, limbs, horns, or wings. Predator or prey? Sentient or not? Wild or domestic?
- Describe aspects of the creature’s personality. Is it friendly, hostile, feisty, uncooperative? How does it behave? What might it do if threatened?
- What abilities does your creature have? Speed, strength, senses, intelligence, defense (a skunk’s spray and an armadillo’s body armor, for example)? What is the creature’s superpower and kryptonite?
- What is the creature’s purpose or function in the world? Does it attack, defend, convey wisdom? Is it a pet or companion, beast of burden, hunted or raised for food?
- Where does the creature come from? What is its natural habitat? How is it born into your world?
- What does your creature prefer to eat? What else can it eat?
5. The Founder’s Story
Write about how the founder and early inhabitants of your world, nation, province, or city came to land in your setting. You can use the following questions to help you get started.
- Who were they? What sort of people were they? Heroes? Accidental pioneers?
- What did they want? What had they hoped to achieve? What was the expectation? Were they successful?
- How did they arrive? Who or what greeted them? Were they starting from scratch or building upon someone else’s foundation?
- How did they get started? What did they focus on first? What sort of rules of governing documents did they formulate?
- How long did it take to establish the place? What were the pitfalls? What were some early successes?
- What did they leave behind? Was it worth it?
After you’ve had a chance to try an exercise or two, come back here and share what you discovered. What surprised you the most? What is your favorite takeaway? Anything you’ll add to your regular tool kit?
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