Researching Worlds That Don’t Exist
So far, at least, there is no online reservation system for me to book a B&B in my story world. This makes literal boots-on-the-ground research impossible. So—now what? For anyone writing outside their own experience, this is a genuine problem. How do you get real intel on places you can’t go or don’t even exist?
Advice on world-building abounds. Maps, naming conventions, operating codes, and heraldry are all legitimate reference points. My only quibble is that, while they provide valuable detail, they don’t necessarily grab a reader’s heart and soul. Despite the excruciating care writers take with constructing the subjunctive in their new Elvish dialect, most readers skate by that stuff until they reach Rabid Fan territory. What they do remember is the character’s joys and sorrows, because that’s something they can participate in right away. When a character is tossed in a dungeon, their despair, their horror of rats, and the dank stink are more memorable than the name of the prison and where it is located, although that info has its role, too. In other words, worry more about creating an emotional and sensory response and sprinkle in fine detail once you’ve nailed the drama.
This approach makes research somewhat easier because equivalent experience might be available. Got a desert planet? Go find a desert. Need alternate Victorian England? Well, there are bits of the original left, if you squint past the traffic. Castles? Yup, and a person can even sleep in one. Travel is best. Museums can help. Anything that duplicates aspects of your story location will do. The object of the game is to find your imaginary world in the one already around you and to answer the question, “What would my character actually experience if…”
While you’re making the rounds, keep a journal and pay attention to everything. High mountain air feels different than sea level. Dirt isn’t all black. Water tastes different from one city to the next. The sound in an ancient stone building carries differently than in a modern house. Observe and select the most telling details about a place, and this will create an experience that is concrete to your reader. That’s when they say, “I feel like I’ve been there.” Best of all, that’s when they wish to go back.
The same goes for the character’s emotional response to the world around them. Once upon a time, I took a gondola up to a mountain top and discovered to my horror that it was a literal mountaintop with no handrails, no fences, nothing. As I’m terrified of heights, my emotional response was—um—acute, especially when another tourist missed his footing and suddenly slid down the mountainside (he was okay). But the mountain scene I wrote afterward was razor sharp because my emotions were so strong at that moment. How does a character feel about their surroundings? Chances are, those same emotions are somewhere inside the writer. Take the narrative out of the head and put it in the gut.
Once a story world is full of vivid detail, other things to consider include demographics, the economy, transportation, and sanitation. There are too many books where no one seems to have a job, and yet they all have money and nice houses (where do I sign up)? It’s as if the story action occurs on a floating platform very separate from the everyday. Any location seems far more real if there is industry, immigrants and visitors from other lands, and the usual mix of old, young, rich, poor, and in-between. The research lab for the way a city works (or occasionally fails to do so) is all around us. Most historically-based industries and transportation systems have museums, books, and documentaries. Futuristic infrastructure might be based on similar principles. Throughout history, nations rise and fall because of trade profits and how they can take them away from someone else.
How does any of this impact day-to-day living for your characters? It’s the world they move through. It might be their means of survival. It might be motivation. Everyone has an opinion about their Internet provider, the bus/underground system, the price of electricity, rents, the price of groceries, and so on—not to mention industrial pollution and the environment. Providing an awareness of the everyday that is appropriate to your character makes it seem as if the world extends beyond what we see on the page. That makes readers curious, and they come back for more. In addition, because some problems are universal (the price of groceries), that makes characters relatable.
That’s not to say a fairy-tale fantasy filled with prom dresses and glass slippers isn’t okay. Gritty, bloody, darkness isn’t for everyone and despite what nitpickers say, no author’s world is wrong because it’s theirs to make and love. Medieval castles might be damp and uncomfortable in our history, but they can be sparkling and filled with unicorns someplace else—as long as I can hear the unicorns clip-clopping across the marble floors. At the same time, an understanding of the castle’s workings gives it depth. A bit of “how did they live” research will point out obvious factual pitfalls. If the medieval princess puts on her lace gown and looks in the perfectly clear looking-glass before attending a ball with a violin orchestra, I’ll buy that if I am told why and how that world has industries out of step with our own historical timelines. Do what you like but make it so real to the reader that it doesn’t pull them out of the story. Fill their senses and stir their emotions until their brains stop caring about the improbability of it all.
As a reader, we all want to believe. As an author, it’s our job to make it easy. Put down good roots as you let your imagination explore the stars.