Two weeks ago I published a post on how to develop characters (read it here), in which I referred to characters as punks. In the last paragraph of the section about troubleshooting your punks, I mentioned the Where-The-Fuck-Am-I Punk. The problem with this troublesome punk isn’t to do with the punk himself—instead, it relates to the environment he lives in. As I said in the article, even the best character won’t appeal to a reader if he’s suspended in a vacuum. The Where-The-Fuck-Am-I Punk is the one who has no home, no hobbies, no places where he typically hangs out—all of these are described so briefly that the reader doesn’t feel the texture of this punk’s life.

I promised you an article on developing backgrounds for your punks. To make them real, you have to fill the vacuum around them with specific information, creating a world for them. It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing about twelve-legged spiders who live on Neptune in their own Game-of-Thrones-style drama, about bees raging against hornets, about elves and werewolves, or about humans or dwarves—they all need a place to live, and that place has to be real for the reader. How do you make it real? Don’t worry—it’ll take you about ten minutes to read this post, after which you’ll be an expert on creating worlds. I’ll do my best to teach you something that around here we call “God-mode.”

Prerequisite

I’m going to assume that you’ve already got at least one punk, developed using the Punk Resume from my previous post. If not… well, read ahead anyway. Some writers prefer to create worlds first, then populate them with punks—maybe you’re one of them. And some writers create punks and worlds in parallel. There’s no rule, I think, but since I start with the punks and later move on to creating their worlds, I’ll use that approach in the following paragraphs. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me and I’ll do my best to tailor my approach to your specific needs.

Disclaimer

As usual, I’m not to blame if you run into trouble—but I will help you if you need it, so feel free to email me.

World

You’ve probably noticed I’m using the word world, which refers to the environment in which your punks live. This is the term I’ll use throughout this discussion when we’re talking about the broad background in which the punks do all the various things they do.

Sample World To Work With

I spent a long time trying to decide if I should either give you a general formula, or if it was better to use samples from my writing. In my opinion, looking at examples of how something works in practice is the best way to learn, so I’m going to use some passages from One God to show you how I deal with world-building issues.

Rolling in the Deep

While creating worlds, I use the “zoom in” method (I also use it to plot out novels, but in a different context—see this post). When zooming in on a world, we start with a large-scale view of that world, then take closer and closer looks at it in order to see the details. We’ll move like this:

Planet — Continent — Country — City — Street — Flat (or “Apartment,” if you prefer)

If you don’t get what I mean yet, don’t worry—just keep reading and everything will become crystal clear. I promise!

Planet

Start with the planet you’re going to write about. The story in One God takes place on Earth, which seems to make this step a piece of cake. Just put down “Earth” in your Excel spreadsheet—case closed. But in One God the planet in my book undergoes certain changes as the plot progresses—after all, this is a story about the future of humankind. For this reason, I had to speculate about how the Earth would look in about seventy years from now. How large would the population be? Which countries would be the most important—still the same powerful economies, or some new players? Would there be a war? Would the EU have ceased to exist? How many species would have become extinct? What about pollution? These were the kinds of questions I had to answer.

Example

In the example below you can see what Earth looks like in 2088.

… When the machine left the crowded area above the Arc, a landscape—the existence of which she hadn’t really been aware of—emerged before her eyes. The towns and cities passing by below were being overtaken by local flora, not as aggressively as with tropical varieties, but just as persistently. Clumps of birches covered roofs. Sidewalks erupted with tracts of dog grass. Wind and rain eventually knocked down the eroded buildings, which fell into a dust that settled on the streets and sidewalks. The people who had lived there once upon a time were gone, leaving behind shacks covered in shingles, small blocks, and estates that had once brimmed with children. They had all moved to the Arc they’d longed for…

Don’t worry too much about the large-scale image. Put down the most important details and move on. You can always update the planet view later.

Continent

Decide on the continent for your punks—preferably a distant one, so they don’t bother you too much. If the story requires them to travel, you’re going to suffer, because—there’s no way around it—you’ll have to learn some geography. (I don’t like geography—my teacher was a real monster.) So what should you do if, like me, you’re no good at geography? The Internet is a great source of information, but don’t hesitate to use your friends as well.

I’m an avid traveler, so a lot of the time it isn’t a big problem for me to work at the level of the continent (even if, in real life, I have no idea where am I sometimes). But I’ve never been to Africa, for instance, where Satia, one of the main characters in One God, has to travel. A close friend of mine has travelled across Africa, though, so I sat her down and interrogated her so I could find out what I needed to know about the continent. She also gave me her memoir of her travels (which has been published here in Poland), and gave me access to some photos and movies she made while she was there. Thank you, Bozena!

Example

In this excerpt you get a sneak preview into how I write about Africa, thanks to the detailed information I got from my friend. As you can see, you don’t need to say that much to convey how Satia feels about the place.

… She’d been in Africa for six months now, travelling between the Republic of Congo, Cameroon, and Angola. She hated all three of them. Savannah? Wild life? Stunning sunrises? Friendly people with a positive attitude towards life? Nothing doing. Dirt, heat, flies, and omnipresent poverty—all things she couldn’t stand…

Please check the Tips and Tricks section for more advice.

Country

Now it’s time to decide on a country for your punks. If there are a number of countries in your story, as there are in One God, learn about all of them and write down any the information you think you’ll need, even if it’s a pain. Use all the sources you can possibly think of to get to know the places and cultures. But don’t lose your focus—pick only the information you’ll want for your novel. I know foreign countries are fascinating, but don’t forget that you’re here to write a novel, not plan your next trip.

Example

For this paragraph from One God I needed some information on Austrian agriculture. I had to struggle to find reliable sources, but eventually I succeeded.

…Austria had been producing about 0.6% of the world’s oats using natural seeds alone. But this variety, which was transgenic, would give it the chance to become an international leader. Even if the assumptions were overly optimistic, they were thought-provoking—and Andreas was a quick thinker…

Please check the Tips and Tricks section for more advice.

City

Now decide on the city where you’ll make your punks suffer. If you want to make them travel, check out every single city you’ll need. Look through photos and watch videos. Try to find a friend who lives (or has lived) in any of your locations who’s willing to share his or her “on the spot” experience. Try to feel the unique atmosphere of the city.

Example

In this excerpt you meet Will in Budapest. I’ve been to Budapest, and walked the bridge—lucky me.

…He stretched and peeked through the window at Margaret Island, located in the middle of the Danube. The bridge joining Pest with Buda was crowded, as always. Will enjoyed watching cars move along streets that had been renovated just a few years before. They looked like ants carrying supplies to their anthill—and he was the undisputed king of the nest. Everyone reckoned with him. Then, suddenly, Genesis appeared out of blue…

Please check the Tips and Tricks section for more advice.

Street

Now it’s high time to put your punks on the street where they live. As with the country and city, you’ll need to put effort into each street you’re going to use. I know it can be a lot of work, but trust me—there’s no other way.

Example

In the sample below you’ll see Zachary walking in New York city. It takes just a sentence or two to show the street and give the boy some background.

…Zachary turned right next to the contemporary art gallery and smiled when he noticed three purple sculptures of French bulldogs sitting in a display. He leaned his forehead against the windowpane for a minute to look at them. It was only when he took his eyes off them again that he noticed the black Ford van. It was shabby-looking, and looked out of place in the clean, upscale street. Maybe they’re spring cleaning someone’s carpets. He remembered his mother ordering a carpet cleaning—that man had come in an equally ratty car….

Please check the Tips and Tricks section for more advice.

Flat

Now you’re almost done—all you need is to give your punk a home. And preferably close the doors—and nail them shut. Unfortunately you can’t do that—your punks have a job to do… more’s the pity. Anyway, now it’s time to try to design flats for them to live in, just like an architect or an interior designer does. Write down all the details you think you’re going to need.

Example

Here we have Anna coming back home to her new flat. Of course, I had to guess what the flats would look like in about fifty years. (Personally, I’d love to have a cleaning robot, especially since my dog Rafa loves to eat his snacks on the carpet in the living room.)

…She got back to her dark flat. She would only have had to say “light” to make the lamps brighten the hall, but she stayed silent. She took off her coat, pulled over a gravity seat, and fell onto it, hiding her face in her hands. A few gobs of mud fell from the soles of her shoes, prompting a cleaning robot, programmed to react to the odor of earth, to approach. It sucked up the dirt, then went back to its hiding spot under the shelf…

Please check the Tips and Tricks section for more advice.

Tips and Tricks

Use Places You Know

Whenever possible, use places you know—places that you’ve travelled to, lived in, or otherwise seen. I know it’s not always possible, but it’s really the best way to write with a reliable sense of place.

Readers can often spot even a small mistake or inauthentic detail, and they don’t like to feel cheated, so either lie perfectly while acting as if you know the place well (see the rules for lying below), or don’t give too many details. Or, if you can manage it, travel to see the real place—something I did with the zoo in Wroclaw, for instance.

Crazy About Photos

Take photographs of any interesting place you visit—I take hundreds of photos, which sometimes pisses off my friends. I take pictures of anything I find interesting: animals, food, cars, street lamps, shops, and so on.

Store the photos in their own folder, then name them, organize them, and use them when needed.

And ask your friends to send you photos from places they visit. Every week I receive a few new ones from one friend or another, because they all know that I’m crazy about this kind of documentation.

Google Maps

This is a perfect tool if you don’t know the place you need to describe and you don’t have any other source of information. It’s the next best thing to traveling to the actual location. Use Google Maps to draw up an itinerary, for example. Turn on the street view to see the buildings, the cars—even a few people. Google Maps will also help you remember details of places you’ve visited in person but haven’t been to for a while.

In Case of Emergency, Lie

Yes, I’m a professional liar. But don’t get me wrong—I do it to entertain you, and only some of the time. I’m really crazy about research (I think we may have another topic for this blog), so I try to check every single detail I can. But sometimes I have to use my imagination. Which means lying. I’m sorry. But, well—you can lie too, if you have to.

Use Your Laptop and Excel

Or something like Excel. Believe me: you’ll get lost in the details if you don’t write them down. Create one sheet with the following columns:

  • Planet
  • Continent
  • Country
  • City
  • Street
  • Flat

Fill the columns with the information you need. Paste links to websites (don’t copy and paste the information into the sheet—save the time and effort), and paste in paths to photos (I have no idea how to paste a photo into Excel in a decent way and I think it makes no sense—it would just distract me from the written information). You don’t need to fill in all the cells in your sheet—put down only the facts you’re likely to need. Update the sheet if and when you find more information.

Troubleshooting Worlds

Too Much Talking

I really don’t like when a punk’s world is described for no particular reason in the narrative parts of the text. It’s much better to show that world through the your punk’s eyes at a moment where it makes sense to include some information about it. Try to avoid long passages describing the world (around here we call this “talking about meadows”). Try to distill the essence of a given place and then put it in just the right place.

Too Many Details

You really don’t need to describe the color of the cup some woman at a café is holding in her hand. Remember, you want your reader alive, which they won’t be if bore them to death. On the other hand, there are some details that help to build up the ambiance of the particular place. Try to find a balance. I know it can be tempting to write long passages, with thousands of words, about a place you love, but don’t do it. Or do it, but don’t publish it.

What About Brands?

I’m not fond of product placement in books, but some writers like it and some readers don’t mind. It’s up to you if you want to talk about Nobu, or just an unnamed restaurant—it depends on what you’re trying to communicate. If you’re going to show a rich and powerful person, use Nobu, which is recognizable and fancy (and owned by Robert De Niro). But if the detail has no real reason to be there, just say “restaurant.” Be careful not to overuse brands—your book will look like marketing material.

And with that, we’re done with the world. Now you can turn God-mode off. We still have to cover the details of a punk’s life (appearance, lifestyle, daily routines) and research (how to do it and stay sane). Which one would you prefer next? Leave a comment to tell me!

And of course contact me for further advice!

Newsletter

Sign up for the newsletter and receive a free book.