World Building: What Time Is It?

From Hogwarts to Whoville every fiction writer constructs a world. It’s an artful business even when the settings are based on real places. The best ones are indelible.

William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi defined the south for years.* I don’t think I’ll ever forget Viet Thanh Nguyen’s chilling depiction of 1974 Saigon in The Sympathizer nor Alice Munro’s Canada. For me, these writers’ fictionalized places have as much or more weight as the actual.

I can’t travel to the American south without “seeing” Faulkner’s version. His narrative braids with my own family’s history in Virginia, the history I learned in books and my lived experience. All those worlds make up the south I “see.”

For the writer of surreal, dystopian or speculative fiction, world-building is a special delight–or burden, depending. The writer must imagine not just the landscape, the weather, the flora and the fauna, but the institutions—government, society, class, communications, media and the news, education, professions and jobs, crimes and consequences, arts, the family.

Then there are logistical matters: How is garbage collected? How do people travel? Rocket propulsion? Bike? How does it smell on a cloudy day? Where do they shop? And for what? What does this world sound like?

It can all feel a little overwhelming. Herewith, a guide in two parts. This first part deals with the when of setting. The second with the where.

Past, Present or Future?

Readers are an impatient lot and they will want to know within a few pages, if not paragraphs, when your story takes place: past, present or future. Each era has its advantages. If setting a story in the past grants the benefit of hindsight, the present can imbue immediacy, while the future can serve as a warning.

Just Come Out and Say It

Whatever the when of your story, you don’t need to announce the exact year, 1654 or 2032, though you can. Orwell famously did in 1984.

Speaking of 1984, You could argue that 1984 is set in the future no matter how old it gets–68 this year. The week of America’s 2017 inaugural, the same week Kellyanne Conway coined “alternative facts,” Orwell’s 1984 rocketed to first place in Amazon sales. Maybe 2017 readers were trying to get a handle on our future.**

Using Historical Event to Set the Time

Salman Rushdie conjures an entire past era in the first sentence of his alternate-reality novel, The Golden House.

On the day of the new president’s inauguration, when we worried that he might be murdered as he walked hand in hand with his exceptional wife among the cheering crowds, and when so many of us were close to economic ruin in the aftermath of the bursting of the mortgage bubble, and when Isis was still an Egyptian mother-goddess, an uncrowned seventy-something king from a faraway country arrived in New York City with his three motherless sons to take possession of the palace of his exile, behaving as if nothing was wrong with the country or the world or his own story.

For a second, readers may assume that this novel, coming as it does in the ninth month of Trump’s (mis)rule, that the story begins on January 20, 2017. But likely by the second clause, and surely by the third we know the reference is to the previous president, Barack Obama and his “exceptional wife,” Michelle Obama. And the 2008 crash.

Rushdie has artfully and precisely positioned us in time: Inauguration Day, 2009. And he has reminded us of the exact era in world crises, those that existed: the mortgage bubble, and those that did not: Isis terrorizing the land. Thanks, Rushdie.

Rushdie has also established that this past world in is not so different from our actual past with the exception of one arriviste family, the Golden’s. We know where to focus our attention.

Using Material Culture to Set the Time 

Margaret Atwood also locates her readers in time with her first sentences in The Handmaid’s Tale. But she uses not event but material culture, in this case, fashion, to ground us in the when.

“We slept in what had once been the gymnasium. The floor was of varnished wood, with stripes and circles painted on it, for the games that were formerly played there; the hoops for basketball nets were still in place, though the nets were gone. A balcony ran around the room, for the spectators, and I thought I could smell, faintly like an afterimage, the pungent scent of sweat, shot through with the sweet taint of chewing gum and perfume from the watching girls, felt-skirted as I knew from pictures, later in miniskirts, then pants, then in one earring, spiky green-streaked hair.”

Filled with visual detail, braiding the familiar with the unfamiliar,*** Atwood grounds us in a place we recognize, the school gym with its painted stripes and circles, though its nets are missing. Those missing nets are the first indicators that something is not right. And it is the unfamiliar that disturbs us and tells us we have branched into an alternate world. The “we,” whoever we is, sleep in a gym. Post hurricane? Post-nuclear-winter? the reader may wonder.  Actually they sleep not in a gym but “what had once been a gym.” Who sleeps there? Why? And what happened to the gym and the children who used to play there?

The fashion details—felt skirts, minis, pants and then spiky hair—tells us that this gym has seen students in the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s. There the fashion-chronicling stops. Later we learn vice president George H. W. Bush has set up a government in exile, which puts the book no later than 1989, confirming our hunch.

Time-Stamping with Material Culture

It’s not just fashion that time-stamps fiction. Any and all elements of material culture will do the trick. Mad Men with its scotch and cigarettes and horizontal architecture rockets us back to 60s America. Multi-year Downton Abbey dresses the women first in corsets and then in flapper dresses. Men and women travel first in horse and buggy then in the Model T, signaling that we are moving from Edwardian England to the Jazz Age. Wolf Hall, with its tapestried walls and its stockinged men brings us to the early 1500s. Material culture can tell us when we are.

It can also tell us where we are, but that’s for Part II of this post on world-building, coming this November 14.

* Just for fun: Faulkner’s map of his fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi. He based his world on the Mississippi’s actual Lafayette County.

**Sales of Dystopian Novels Have Been Spiking on Amazon Since the Election [http://time.com/money/4648774/trump-1984-dystopian-novel-sales-brave-new-world/]

*** Thanks to Tim Weed for his terrific two-part post World-Building in Historical Fiction [https://timweed.net/essays-articles/on-the-writing-craft/narrative-as-time-machine-five-tools-for-world-building-in-historical-fiction/] in which he explains why and how to braid the familiar with unfamiliar. The familiar grounds us. The unfamiliar alerts us.

4 comments

  1. Terrific advice on how to establish time period — even for novels set in another world with a completely different past, present, and future. I’ve discovered the hard way that readers still want to be oriented to time despite the fact that there is no nineteenth century, or Renaissance, or BCE. It’s a lot harder to sink into a story when you have no idea if this place is modern or ancient or somewhere in between. Using material culture and braiding the familiar with the unfamiliar really helps do just this. Thanks Lisa!

    • Lisa Birk

      Right! That IS an entirely different order of When-ness. My mind’s going two ways: 1. Wow! Fascinating problem to solve. And, 2. Yikes! How DO you do that?! Looking forward to learning more from you.

  2. Lisa Birk

    Thanks, Tim! Your 2-parter on world-building, and also Carol Gray’s, which I’ll link to in my November post, informed my thinking. Not to say my writing!!! Grateful to you both. Good writing karma to you!

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