Examples from Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, George Lucas
As a writer, you’ll hear it over and over, “Write what you know.”
It’s good advice. And almost everyone will tell you, from your creative writing teacher to your college English prof, “If you want to write authentically, write what you know.”
They also call it “finding your voice.”
And it is good advice. Except for writers of fiction. And not just writers of fantasy or speculative fiction. But writers of all genres of fiction, from literary works to detective novels, romance thrillers and erotica.
“As for ‘write what you know,’ I was regularly told this as a beginner. I think it’s a very good rule and have always obeyed it. I write about imaginary countries, alien societies on other planets, dragons, wizards, the Napa Valley in 2200. I know these things. I know them better than anybody else possibly could, so it’s my duty to testify about them.” — Ursula Le Guin
Do you remember what the world looked like before? Before Earthseas sprang into being? Before Harry Potter went to Hogwarts? Before dragons rose to battle thread in the skies over Pern? Before Smaug ruled Erebor and the final conflict raged at the Black Gates?
It was a much smaller place before J.R.R. Tolkien, Anne McCaffrey, J. K. Rowling and Ursula Le Guin scribed their words across the page. Words which opened our eyes and our hearts, and, most of all, fired our imaginations.
It was a much darker place before C.S. Lewis unveiled the light of Narnia. Before Isaac Asimov harnessed the power of robots with his Three Laws.
Do you remember what the world looked like before?
The world became a much scarier place when Mary Shelley introduced her mad scientist and Abraham Stoker unleashed a blood-drinking count on his unsuspecting readers.
The mean streets of New York were a little grittier when you walked them with Mickey Spillane’s, Mike Hammer. The cobbled alleyways of Victorian London, like the moors around Grimpen Mire, were foggy and dangerous even in the company of Conan-Doyle’s master sleuth, Sherlock Holmes.
The world turned downright terrifying when, in Arthur C Clarke’s “The Nine Billion Names of God” the characters notice that “overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.”¹ To say nothing of the first time we met a clown named Pennywise, and a realm where “they all float.”²
Besides great writing and excellent characters, the one thing which makes all of it believable, make it so real, is the world in which it all takes place.
The rich and specific world created for each of these tales exactly suits the characters and their story. We can’t imagine Dracula without his storm-shrouded castle, creaking doors and howling wolves, any more than we can see a little boy in a yellow rain-slicker floating a toy boat in the gutter without thinking about killer clowns, or hear the pounding of coffin nails without recalling William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County in “As I Lay Dying”.
But what makes these worlds work?
To say they feel right for the characters is only part of the story. They have to feel right for your readers as well.
Actually, to say the setting feels right for the characters is another way of saying your characters fit their setting. Which is great. Well, as long as they’’re supposed to, that is. Otherwise, not so good.
Setting tells you where you are
A good way to make your setting feel right for your readers is to imagine a normal, detailed version of your setting first, and then tweak it to fit what your story needs.
It’s like hearing a song which reminds you of one you used to know. You can’t remember the lyrics, but still, it makes this one seem vaguely familiar. Or you’re recall a place similar once, a place you vaguely remember.
Here’s a great visual example from Star Wars, Mos Eisley Cantina on the desert world of Tatooine, the sleazy tavern where Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi go to find a pilot to take them to Alderaan…
It could be any scuzzy, frontier bar in any scuzzy, frontier town. The dusty streets outside remind you of many a western. Newcomers are scanned with suspicion, though the hard-drinking, down-at-the-heels regulars of the tavern are more intent on minding their own drinks and conversations. Gunslingers, violence, bullies seeking an easy mark, and trouble-makers abound.
…any scuzzy, frontier bar in any scuzzy, frontier town.
Except this bar is on a desert world somewhere beyond known space, and the bar patrons aren’t cowboys, in the strictest sense. Alien creatures of every kind imaginable rub shoulders with hard-bitten humans, the singer’s a blue-skinned Twi’lek dancer, and the weapons range from fists and light sabers to futuristic rail-guns.
But the attitudes of the bar-keep and his patrons are typical of such places the world over. They’re known quantities. Touchstones. We’ve met characters just like them. They help us make sense of an otherwise alien world.
J.K. Rowling’s creation, Hogwarts, is another example of a well-known, normal-seeming place, a boarding school, stood on its ear. This time to create a sense of magical encounter.
Where would you find moving staircases, rooms which vanish on a whim, and talking portraits whose subjects leave their frames at will? Candles suspended in mid-air under a starry sky to light your groaning dinner table? Where else but in a boarding school for witches and wizards.
But, though magical beings and creatures abound, there is order. There are rules, not just school rules, to be obeyed. Rules of conduct, rules of behavior, and rules of magic use, which the characters break at their peril.
The magical world Rowling creates follows certain rules just as the real world follows certain physical rules. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west.
And her characters, though magical, act out of the same feelings which motivate mere mortals — jealousy, hatred, fear, lust for power, friendship, courage, love.
All the qualities which make us human make her characters believable.
And though settings magically flow, bend and adapt, they must act within their physical limitations. Spells and magic potions eventually all wear off. And force fields will gradually erode and fail as the wizards raising them tire.
Setting creates mood
Hogwarts magical enchantment captivates you from the first reading. It breathes the very stuff of dreams.
Just as those damp, cobbled, foggy streets echoing with the clip-clop of a hansom cab signal adventure, the little boy following his boat down a rain-slick street signals another kind of adventure.
An adventure in which the setting conspires, along with a spooky clown, to scare us almost to death.
At one point in Steven King’s “It” an abused, frightened girl hides in her grungy bathroom. An ordinary, run-down, normal-ish bathroom. But in King’s bizarre world, the drain wells up with blood. The shower, taps and toilet overflow with a tide of red.
The girl is terrified, unable to stem the flow.
But in the next scene, one of friendship and, yes, love, her best buddies and fellow odd-balls help her clean up the vomitous mess.
The images are so powerful, the setting and characters’ actions within it so believable, your mood swings from completely grossed-out back to awe, gee within a page-turn.
It’s all in the setting.
In “Dreamcatcher”, King writes, “Memory is the basis of every journey.”³ And in creating a great, believable setting, you’re tapping into that kind of memory in your reader.
Then you stand it on its head, or maybe just a twist it a little sideways. So there’s something familiar in what you’ve written. Something your reader can hold onto. But something new as well.
You always leave them a signpost though, a talisman, a resonance to a place they once saw, or the song they can’t quite remember the words to anymore.
A touchstone, a link to the familiar, as you sweep you reader into new worlds.
Into your setting…