So you have a strategy or two for locating the reader in time. You know whether and why you’re setting your surreal, speculative or dystopian novel in the past, present or future. And you’ve pinpointed the era, the decade, maybe even the year. (And if you haven’t yet, you can read part I of World Building: What Time Is It?)
Now it’s time to think about locating the reader in space.
Carol Gray, middle grade fantasy author, didn’t want to draw a map of her world, but when she did, she discovered that the capital of her world sat like a spider at the center of a web of rivers, a perfectly analogy for the evil totalitarian government luring citizens to their doom. (Check out Gray’s terrific post, Six Tips for Building a Fantasy World, for more world-building tips.)
Art not your favorite subject? If drawing even triangle mountains feels daunting, Jonathan Roberts’ post shows step-by-step how to rough out your geography in Worldbuilding by Map. He also explores the many ways setting can be used to generate and dramatize conflict. Still feeling self-conscious? Roberts writes, “If your line doesn’t look like it was plotted by a drunken ant, you’re doing it wrong.”
Milk That Setting! And You Don’t Necessarily Need the Whole Planet!
Margaret Atwood keeps the world of The Handmaid’s Tale small and deliberately so. We begin in a school gym, and over the course of the novel, we don’t get out much either. We do learn that protagonist Offred lives in what once was the US, now the totalitarian Republic of Gilead, but the present-day action is largely confined to a single town. In circumscribing Offred’s geographic world, Atwood intensifies the claustrophobia. It’s almost as if we’re wearing those winged hats.
Ancient storytellers understood this strategy just as well. Beowulf, an eighth-century English epic, is set in Denmark and Sweden. There’s no mention of any other country. Nothing has made me understand the wonder and power of electricity so well as reading of Beowulf’s heroic journey in a minuscule boat across the “flood-rule,” aka the Baltic Sea, in the pitch dark. The dark is so much darker when it can’t be vanquished with the flick of a switch.
You Can, Of Course, Depict the Planet. If You Do, Milk It!
In 1984, George Orwell’s main character, Winston Smith, lives in Landstrip One (formerly London) in the mega-country Oceania (the pink area), which puts Winston on the front lines of dictator Big Brother’s constant warring. Landstrip One is a tiny pink dot literally oceans away from the rest of pink Oceania.
Particularize Your Novel’s Place
No matter your setting, in a single room or across several planets, make that place real for the reader with sensory imagery. Within the first few paragraphs of 1984, we watch protagonist Winston Smith enter “Victory Mansions” “on a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” He pushes open the glass doors, but not quickly enough to escape a “swirl of gritty dust. The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats.” A poster, too-big for the indoors, of a handsome man’s face with eyes that seem to follow you, is tacked to the wall. The elevator is broken. The electricity, we are told, is turned off “in preparation for Hate Week.”
Winston’s world is one dingy, broken-down place. But Orwell doesn’t tell us that. He puts us there with the pungent odor of cabbage and grit peppering our ankles. Those are the details that we recognize–the “familiar” as Tim Weed wrote about in his post, World-Building in Historical Fiction.
Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.
The unfamiliar, the details that alert us to the differences in this world are braided right in with the familiar: The clock strikes thirteen. Hate Week is upcoming, and there are those eyes that seem to follow Winston. R’uh-r’oh.
Avoid the Dreaded Info Dump
Notice, however, what Orwell has not done. He has not given us, in the first pages, the history of governance nor the entire geography or any other of the fabulous details of this imagined world. We cross the threshold with Winston. We are greeted with a swirl of dust and the rank odor of cooked cabbage. And huge eyes follow us up the stairs and down the hall.