Nicola here. There’s a meme going around on Facebook at the moment that is proving very popular. It asks: “You have been transported to the location in the last book you read. Where are you?” The answers flood in, from Scotland to the West Indies, from the New York of the future to London in 1515 and all times and places in between.
This meme set me thinking about world building, creating a setting that is real and vivid enough to make readers believe in it, literally to be transported there in their imaginations. Whether it is the fantasy world of a paranormal novel or the literally out-of-this world creation of science fiction, the writer faces the challenge of making it real for the reader. This happens in historical fiction as well, of course. We have a framework within which we set our stories; the era, the politics, the social history, fashions, etiquette etc and from within all that detail we craft a world that is compelling (I hope), a world which makes the reader feel that they are stepping back in time.
Until recently I had never really thought about the way in which writing a contemporary novel also requires world building. It wasn’t that I had assumed that because you were writing in the present that everything would already be “real.” Clearly it’s not as simple as that. A writer still needs to create a place that is vivid and enthralling. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why I love Mary Stewart’s novels. The way in which she evokes a place in just a few brief lines is wonderful:
“I met him in the street called Straight.
I had come out of the dark shop doorway, into the dazzle of the Damascus sun my arms full of silks.” Mary Stewart, The Gabriel Hounds.
And I’m already there. I can feel the heat of the sun, hear the sounds of the market and feel the brush of the silk against my arm. I’ve stepped into that world.
The book I’m writing at the moment, Winter’s Shadow, is the first time I’ve ever written anything with a contemporary thread to it. It’s set in three different time periods, the present, the early 19th century and the mid 17th century. Perhaps unsurprisingly it is the modern world I am having the most trouble creating since I’ve never tried doing this before. It’s a real challenge to conjure up characters who act and speak in a convincingly modern way and yet still fit into what is almost a fairytale fantasy world of time slip.
The time slip element itself is fun to write and here I think my mentor is Daphne Du Maurier, another author who creates the most magnificent worlds. Frenchman’s Creek is a historical novel and yet it starts in the present. The reader literally travels back in time, dropping in for a cup of tea in the farmhouse kitchen that was one part of the old manor house, travelling up the creek with a solitary yachtsman in his dingy.
“A forgotten century peers out of dust and cobwebs… All the whispers and echoes from the past that is gone teem into the sleeper’s brain and he is with them and part of them…” Daphne Du Maurier, Frenchman’s Creek.
By the time I have finished that first chapter I have travelled back in time three hundred and fifty years in my imagination and I am there in Cornwall on the banks of Frenchman’s Creek.
But it’s not just about the place. It’s about the people too. Frenchman’s Creek is made all the more romantic and mysterious by the fact that I’m there in company with a pirate. (Yes!) It's the characters who add so much to the world they inhabit. They are a hugely significant part of creating a vivid setting. Writing Winter’s Shadow I spend some of my day exploring the world of a hero who is “hard steel and rough edges, cloaked in Cavalier lace and velvet.” I'm in the 17th century with William Craven, Prince Rupert and Charles II, and I'm very happy to be there!
So back to the meme. You have been transported to the location in the last book you read or the one you are currently reading. Where are you, who are you with, and what is it like? I’m offering a copy of The Blanchland Secret, one of my early Regencies, to one commenter.