The Writer’s Desk: The world built in the reader’s mind

By the time my first novel was released in 2016, I’d had many stories, poems, and essays published, along with an MFA in Creative Nonfiction. I’d also been attending or presenting at writer’s workshops and conferences since 1989, yet it wasn’t until 2017 that I heard the term ‘worldbuilding.’

Fantasy, sci fi, and historical fiction writers are cognizant of worldbuilding because they create places that don’t currently exist, but authors like me, who write contemporary fiction, create settings using conventional details. Memoirists use remembered settings.

The ambient world in which a story takes place matters. How would the stakes for The Great Gatsby change if Gatsby lived in a beach shack rather than a mansion? If Dorothy had dreamed of landing inside a Walmart instead of Oz, she would still encounter a cast of interesting characters, but would she experience the same epiphany? In the memoir WILD, the ever-changing landscape in Cheryl Strayed’s world is integral to the story.

No matter which category or genre one writes, all writers are tasked with providing sensory detail in the story’s surroundings. If a character drives a Ford Focus, I don’t need to provide much description other than the color, model, and year unless there’s a feature to that particular car integral to the story. For example, in my novel, Breakfast with Neruda, my protagonist lives in a 1982 Ford LTD station wagon. His world is the car. If my character is captain of a space ship or a servant girl in Ancient Egypt, I must plant specific enough elements in my reader’s mind so she can envision this world and understand this unfamiliar space.

Building an authentic world isn’t just for sci-fi and fantasy writers. Here’s an exercise to build a world: The following event is so generic it can happen anywhere and it’s forgettable because it lacks tension, voice, and sensory detail. Rewrite it with stronger verbs and specific details to allow the reader to create a mental movie of the world in which this scene takes place.

The receptionist sat at the desk. She answered a phone call and wrote something on a pad of paper. She thanked the caller and told them to have a good day and hung up. She took her cup to the coffee pot and filled it. She sat back down and kicked off her shoes.

Is she alone in the room? What sounds surround her? is it hot or cold? Is she young? Old? Humanoid? What type of writing implement does she use? Is her tone with the caller genuine or sarcastic? Is her cup special to her? Is it cracked and stained? Is the coffee fresh or has it been standing all day? Why does she remove her shoes? Does she look down and discover they don’t match? Answers to these types of questions will add depth to the scene.

Learning more about worldbuilding in a virtual workshop on World Building for Any Genre, held by EPIC Group Writers on Sept 18, 2021. This workshop is open to members and non-members.

Laura Moe spent most of her working life in central and Southeastern Ohio, but moved to the Seattle area where the world provides a different landscape. She is board president of EPIC Group Writers and is the author of Breakfast with Neruda (Simon & Schuster/Merit Press, 2016), Blue Valentines (2019) and The Language of the Son (2019). She is owned by a spoiled white cat.

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