Recently I read a post on the SCBWI Summer Conference Blog about Malinda Lo’s session on world building. As a science fiction and fantasy author, Lo spoke on the importance of creating a culture and setting that make the story feel real. This isn’t something that takes place only in science fiction and fantasy. As I read this post, I realized that it is something I am doing in my mystery.
Here are 4 5-minute exercises you can do to help build your setting.
- What do people notice? When someone steps into your world, what is the first thing that they notice. I live in Missouri. When exchange students from Malaysia arrived here in the fall, even these young people from Southeast Asia commented on the humidity. Yep. We’ve got that in abundance. In the alpine deserts of New Mexico and West Texas, it is the space. At the base of a mountain or an overlook, you notice that you can see a remarkable distance.
- Unique food or drink. There is going to be something, no matter where you are, that no one else seems to eat. Louisville has a turkey sandwich called the Hot Brown. St. Louis has toasted ravioli and crab rangoon. Texas and the Southern US? Sweet tea. What is it in your setting?
- What is the question that people ask? In St. Louis, everyone asks where you went to highschool. Outsiders don’t get it, but this question reveals where you live, your socio-economic status and whether or not your family has engaged in white flight. Other questions that can be just as telling are what sport your child plays and where you picked up the gift for a child’s birthday party.
- Unspoken rules. Rules are something that Lo spoke about. Unwritten rules are tough and every place has them. I remember staying with my aunt in Florida. She sent me to my room to change 4 times. She wouldn’t say, “You can’t wear slacks to church.” Finally I had to start putting on my mom’s clothes which solved the problem. She packed no slacks. I packed no skirts. A lot of these rules have to do with clothing but there are also a lot of food rules – no one eats tacos with chocolate sauce or stuffs a turkey with hot dogs. What are the unwritten rules of your setting?
Take five minutes and brain storm one of these topics. Work through all five of them and you’ll have pulled together information on the physical world of your story as well as the culture.