Just to let you all know, the blog may take next week off. I’ll be vacationing, tra la, and I don’t know if I’ll get to it.
On August 29th, 2011, Charlotte wrote, ….I’ve got the plot set down pretty well in the novel I’m working on, but what I’m having trouble with is the world itself. It’s fantasy, and it’s set in a world other than this one, and I don’t want it to come off quite as modern as our world–e.g. skyscrapers, cars, etc. But there are some modern aspects that I do want to use–e.g. Polaroids but not digital cameras, flashlights but not streetlights, pianos and acoustic guitars but not keyboards and electrics, trains but not cars, etc. And there are also period aspects that aren’t necessary to get into, such as how people wash their clothes or go to the bathroom, which are never significant to the story, but I feel I have to put in anyway because I know I’m wondering how these things work, though I don’t remember ever wondering that when reading any other book.
Is it okay to have only some modern inventions, and even more in the background? Or do I need some major reason why there aren’t highways and a million electric appliances–like how in Harry Potter they explain that Muggle inventions tend to “go haywire” around heavy concentrations of magic, which is why there are no computers or electric lights at Hogwarts?
If it works, it’s fine. If the reader accepts whatever you’ve laid down, you’ve done well. But not so well if your reader starts scratching her head and loses interest in your story because she doesn’t understand why your zebras are plaid not striped but they’re still called zebras.
If you’re writing about a sort of modern world, like ours in some respects, different in others, readers will assume that details not mentioned (toilets, laundry, banks) work in the regular way. You don’t have to haul them into your plot just to show them in operation. Even if they’re different, if the differences don’t influence events, you can omit them. When they’re needed, say in the eleventh volume of your series, you can bring them in. If you’ve set the stage for a world in which mattresses turn sleepers over like pancakes at two am every night, the reader will go with the flow, or, in this case, the flip.
You mention Polaroids as a kind of camera you want to keep. The trouble I have with that is simply the name. Polaroid seems to belong solidly to planet earth, because of the link to Polaroid Corporation. I’d look for a generic term, like instant-image camera. In my fantasy novels I avoid references to our reality. Of course this is impossible to do entirely. Gnomes and ogres, for example, are our invention. Still, we’re not going to meet up with them at the supermarket. In another example, when I write dark-skinned characters I don’t call them African, and I don’t call light-skinned characters European. There is no Europe, no Africa. Dark-skinned characters don’t have to come from a warm climate or fair-skinned from a cold. In my world the effects of sun on skin color are up to me.
It can be helpful, as in your Harry Potter example, if you know why some features of modern life were invented in your world and others weren’t. Knowing can guide your future choices. But it’s okay if you don’t know. In our real world modern inventions come about because people think them up. Sometimes new technology makes the thinking possible, but sometimes someone just comes up with a fresh way to use old materials. I believe post-its are an example of this. Alas, there must be myriad potential devices that could help us that no one has dreamed up so far.
If you do know the reason behind the state of technology and tell the reader, you may enhance her pleasure. Here’s a small detail from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series: The trolls in this universe are slow thinkers, actually stupid. The reason, we discover, is that room temperature isn’t their natural climate. The colder it is the smarter they get. At sub-zero they’re brilliant. I love having that explained.
The Discworld series is written in third-person. Most books begin with a short preface about the world, explaining that it rides on the back of a giant turtle. Once the reader sees that, she’s ready for anything. If this kind of approach suits what you’re doing, you can introduce your world in this sort of way even if the rest of the book is told in first person. It’s a quick way of bringing the reader in.
But you don’t have to do this. I never have.
Still, the reader will have a leg up if you introduce your world quickly. I discuss this in Writing Magic, so you may want to take a look. Your beginning sets up expectations for the whole book. Beginnings are hard because you have to do so much: start the conflict, introduce the major characters, begin to establish the world. You can bring on the fantasy after the first chapter, have your main character borrow Grandma’s pearls in the third and get transported to her sixteenth birthday party. Readers may enjoy the surprise but it’s nice if you can work in a tiny hint that such a switcheroo is possible. The reader will remember the earlier brief mention of culottes and be happy.
I often don’t know what my world is going to need until I’ve figured out my whole story, sometimes after hundreds of pages of looking for signs in a forest of plot possibilities. So soldier on!
As always, it can be helpful to show your story to someone. Based on the comments following last week’s post, some of you are nervous when fresh eyes read your writing. I am too! But it’s usually worth it. You can ask a friend or another writer to read the first couple of chapters while looking only at your world building or only at your technology. You can say you don’t want to hear a word about your plot or your characters, just this one thing, and you’re feeling a tiny bit fragile, so please be gentle.
Here are three prompts:
∙ I sometimes wonder how progress happened, especially early human progress. For instance, how did somebody realize that metal could be extracted from ore? How did farming start? Who invented shoelaces? I once read that in the Middle Ages buttons were purely decorative, sewn on clothing just to look pretty; they didn’t fasten anything. How did buttons migrate from decorative to useful? Imagine how something was invented without looking it up. Who was there? What was the dialogue? Was there an argument? Write the scene.
∙ Invent a new imaginary creature, not a fairy or an elf or an ogre. Describe it. Put it in a story.
∙ Consider Rumplestiltskin, who is described by Wikipedia as an “impish creature.” Where does he live? What’s the technology in his culture? How is it that he can spin straw into gold? Write a scene from his backstory.
Have fun and save what you write!