I love maps. Right now, I have a stash of them tucked away in my closet just waiting to be opened. And not just any map, but National Geographic maps. Maps with insets that explain the context of what you’re seeing and why.
Yesterday my son asked me to help him make a map. We sat down on the floor and I drew a coastline and a wall, a river and some rapids, a flower field and a forest. And as I drew, I asked him what they were and why they were there. The wall because the Snake King didn’t want anyone to bother his gardens of flowers in their tidy rows. The rapids because giants threw stones in the water and didn’t realize what trouble they would cause.
We talked about why a desert could be so close to the water and how that could happen. That a river flows to the ocean—most of the time. As we built this world, more stories emerged. No one came to the coast—why? Was it too shallow? Were the lands on the coast inhospitable? We called it the Glass Coast. Was it made of glass? We don’t know. But we have room to decide. And in a world where the strange and the weird happens, you need to know the why and the how even if it didn’t behave like the world we live in now.
Worldbuilding is something fantasy and science fiction writers have drilled into them. We come from a tradition of epic lands where the author knew exactly what happened in that particular place—20 years, 100 years, 1000 years ago. A level of detail so precise that many people never leave the worldbuilding process at all. That is the writing world I grew up in.
But I write romances and contemporary ones at that. And yet this process of knowing the who, the what, the where and the how still informs the way I build my romances.
There’s logic and rules embedded in the world you create, even contemporary ones. The same questions apply. Who is this person? What does she do? Why does she do it there? Who does she see in her average day? How does she feel about all of that?
For me setting is my third character. But setting isn’t just a spot on a map. It’s also a country, a region, a neighborhood, a house, an apartment. It affects class and occupation, race and gender. Setting is a culture and a way of seeing the world that my character either conforms to or rebels against.
Some stories work better in certain settings but that doesn’t mean you have to set them there. Some of the best stories go against type. What would it be like to be that person, in that time, in that place, with that background, doing that job? Those answers build your world.
If I’d never drawn the wall on that map, I never would have known that the Snake King has a garden of flowers in neat rows. Then I never would have asked why does the Snake King have that garden? Did they plant it themselves or have they always had this garden? Is it decorative or does it fill some spiritual or political role? And those answers always add depth to the story.
I want to read that story.