Mar 29, 2010

Blame the Environment

What Does Your World Do?

I've come across some more insightful information about settings and worldbuilding that I wanted to share with you. You can see my recent post on settings here: Using Settings Effectively For Fiction.

Do you know why your story unfolds in the setting you've chosen?
  • it seemed like a pretty place
  • you live there, and you know all the locations
  • it's a fantasy so you made it up
Any of those sound familiar? You might choose a setting for your own reasons, but WHY is that setting important for your characters and your story?

My current WIP is a mystery set in 1939 in a remote town of Victoria, called Warracknabeal. My reason for picking this location was because an interesting event occurred in this country town at that time. This sparked my 'what if' thoughts and a story idea formed. 

BUT, I could have easily changed the location to suit my story needs. I could have made the location an inner-city football club, or a Polo-club in England instead of the country town racetrack. Changing the location would change my characters, their motives and the way they interact with their surroundings.

I'm re-doing Holly Lisle's writing course How To Think Sideways and applying the steps to my current murder mystery, The Warracknabeal Kids. In lesson 7, Holly addresses the process of worldbuilding. Simply put, she suggests you can avoid a lot of superfluous writing when doing your pre-writing work in building your background world by asking two questions:
  • Does this bit of worldbuilding create a conflict for the story?
  • Does this bit of worldbuilding force a primary character to change?

Conflict and change. That's it. These are the elements that will add a good pace and interest to your story. The scenery, weather, culture, etc, it's all has to contribute to the plot.

Sometimes there is an obvious connection. The Book Thief (Markus Zusak) protagonist's family hides a Jewish man in their basement, and the story explores how this both risks and enriches their lives. This is set in Germany during WWII, and without this setting the story would loose the strong tones of fear, defiance and hope it carries so beautifully. 

In the movie Avatar, we see the visual splendour of the alien planet's environment, not to show us pretty landscape but to make a clear binary for the destruction caused by the humans. We are technology, they are nature and the protagonist must choose a lifestyle because you can not infinitely pass between the two, something must force a change. And it does.

An important thing to remember about your story's world, or setting, is that it includes the location, time and history. A location's past contributes to the story.

Great, you know the setting needs to push the story forward but how can you find ways to do that?

James Frey in How to Write a Damn Good Novel suggests once you've made a decision to set your story in a certain time and place, you should do some research to provide ideas for conflict and subplots. For example, while researching Warracknabeal and Australian life in 1939 I came up with a few interesting elements to add to and push the story and subplots:
  • The infamous Victorian 'Pyjama Girl' murder was still unsolved, but new information led to newsreels being shown in cinemas. 
  • On the 13th January 1939, the 'Black Friday' fires affected approximately three quarters of Victoria.
  • Films released in 1939 (I'll have to dig deeper to find when they came to Australia) included; The Wizard of Oz, Gulliver's Travels, Another Thin Man (a mystery) and Gone With the Wind.
  • Australia was still recovering from the Great Depression.
  • WWII would break out later that year.
Those are just a few points that I can work into my story. This is not just to give the reader a glimpse of country life in 1939, but to create an understanding of the characters, their motivations and their limitations. I like the idea of backdropping my story with the 'Pyjama Girl' investigations and updates, and the experience of the fires would have an impact on residents and may create a lynch-mob attitude to a firebug in their own town.

You could also do up a map of your setting and see what physical barriers and opportunities there are. Google maps is always a helpful tool for that. If you're at the edit stages of your story already, this is a good way to find ways to link the various plots of your story and to revise with setting value in mind.

Old picture of the main street of Warracknabeal

A movie clip I found about the early days of racing in Victoria:


  1. Thanks for the sound advice! I admit that I chose my setting in my current WIP because it was a "pretty place" that I visited last summer. Interestingly, my second WIP is set in a place I visited a few times during the summer as a kid. I'm starting to see a trend. :) Perhaps I need to consider my setting more closely in the future.

  2. Sometimes it's place that spark our ideas, sometimes events or characters. It's all good - I'm a strong believer in work with what you've got, you can always find more connections in the revision stage. Whatever place you pick, if you dig deep enough, you'll find something fascinating that can affect your plot. :-)

  3. Wow, I love always entwining new places in my short stories. Written one based on Pandharpur, Andra Pradesh IND. Kathmandu, Nepal.

    For a 500 word story, my friends keep asking why I keep doing new places :D I really dont know whyyy!! But your post gives me a good idea, why we SHOULD! :)


    Do visit my blog! Would love to see you by! *cheers*