Thursday, June 30, 2005

Where It's At

I feel kind of like God. Or at least, what I imagine God might have felt when he was inventing, you know, the world. I'm in the middle of world-building for my group of inter-related novels, and it's a lot of fun. Work, yes, but fun all the same because I'm for the first, last, and only time in my life the Supreme Ruler and Great One of All Things.

I should clarify. I'm not world-building in the sci fi/fantasy sense. I'm not coming up with new planets and new species and new languages. The idea of having to be that creative makes me seize up with fear. J.R.R. Tolkien had to have been possibly the most imaginitive human being ever to walk the Earth, what with creating an entire mythology that spanned thousands upon thousands of years and included a cast in the quadruple digits. Amazing that he was able to keep it all straight, and he had nary a word processor or Excel spreadsheet at his disposal.

No, my world-building is limited to the invention of new countries. Many of my stories take the characters out of the US and into what can be considered "hostile territories." I know I could drop them down in real world hot spots such as Afghanastan and Iraq and Haiti. But I will never visit these places and doing research on-line and via my local library isn't enough to give me the feel of what they are really like. There is no way I could effectively convey those places in a way that people who've actually been there would believe.

So I'm inventing places that parallel these dangerous countries. I figure since no one can actually visit my countries, no one can claim that I'm full of beans when I describe the environment. As long as I ground the characters in reality that closely parallels what truly exists, I figure I'll be okay.

Hardest part is coming up with names for my imaginary countries. Heaven forbid I make up a name only to find out it's actually a real place. If the name sounds good in my head and rolls easily off my tongue, I have to wonder if that isn't because at some point in my life, I heard it somewhere before.

Doing this, though, makes me wonder how important setting is to a story. I know the answer to that question is contingent on the type of story being told - is the story character driven, in which case maybe setting is secondary in importance, or is the story plot driven, in which case the setting could be key. I also know that some readers prefer stories that stay close to home over ones that involve globe hopping.

Except, it seems that when I say "stay close to home" that really means books set in places that most people find normal. For example, I could read a book set in London - which is nearly 4,000 miles away from home - and the setting would fade in the background. London is real. London is normal, in that it is close enough to my own reality that I can imagine what it feels like and looks like (and I've been there, so that helps). However, if the book takes place in Buenos Aires, Argentina - 5,000 miles away from home - I'd need a lot of setting descriptive to place me there. I have ideas of what I think Buenos Aires is like but no real idea if I'm even close.

So it seems that maybe people who don't like books that happen outside their country might be okay with things that happen in parts of the world that are very much like their own country. It's when you enter the exotic that people aren't so sure they want to go along with the characters. Of course, what people define as exotic is highly subjective.

Regardless, my stories require my characters to be in dangerous places, so I need to do some country building. Maybe once I've gotten a few countries created, I'll move up to new planets. I'll bet that's how Tolkien started out.

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