I am standing in the water and it is cool and soft against my calves. I breathe in: pine, sweetfern, earth, lily pads. I breathe out: shivering slightly in the cooling moonlit air. In that moonlight, reflected and distorted, I see the pines sway on the gently rippling surface of the lake. A mosquito buzzes in my ear. I swat it.
I wonder absently if my nakedness is welcome here, but the moon is up now and the cars are gone. There isn’t camping here, so people rarely stay. If they’re camping, they go up the road another few miles to Birch Grove. Or 150 feet off any trail or road — this is Forest Service land. (Colonized land. Ojibwe land.) You can see the scars of it: trees planted in rows from logging. Sandy pine barren trails for ATVs. Picnic tables. White women standing in the water. Swatting mosquitoes.
In this flash of creative nonfiction, I am writing a portrait of a place. Setting the scene in space and time in the way it relates to characters and action. I am worldbuilding. Worldbuilding is often considered in the context of speculative and SFF work, but is just as vital to writing good literary fiction or creative nonfiction. All stories have a setting. But thoughtful construction of a setting brings it from being a drab backdrop to your plot and characters to an interactive and interesting force within the story. So what does worldbuilding mean in this context? And how can you develop it for your next writing project?
Do your homework
When writing about a real place instead of an imagined one (or even an imagined place based in real life, such as the fictional town of Stars Hollow, Connecticut in Gilmore Girls) it is important to understand the things that make that place unique, the lived experiences of the people who’s place you’re writing about, and the way that place shapes those experiences and the experiences of your characters. This doesn’t necessarily have to take the form of research, it can also come from your own history and experiences of a place, or from hearing those experiences from other people. The closer you can come to personal connection with a place, the more genuineness and specificity you’ll be able to easily add.
Additionally, it’s good to understand the broader context of a place including history, demographics, politics, economics, ecology, geography, etc. Some of these may be directly relevant to your story, help you develop characters or backstories, or just make the world feel more expansive and connected. This is relevant no matter the scale of the world you’re building. Maybe you’re writing a political thriller, and you have a character who is a US Senator. You’ll need to have an understanding about the different states in America, and their general politics in order to develop the Senator’s character and find out which state they represent. Maybe you’re writing about playing in your backyard as a child. You’ll want to think back and remember what bugs might have been in the yard, how it changed throughout the seasons, what color the picket fence was, etc.
Place as Character
To me, the best worldbuilding is when a place feels like a main character in your story. Think about the brooding, gothic nature of Thornfield Hall in Jane Eyre. The house itself has personality and a key role in the plot of the book. It’s also an important tone setting element. N.K. Jeminsin’s novel (speculative, I know, bear with me) The City We Became makes the concept literal. The story imagines the city of New York, a city with a well established cultural and literary character, as six humanoid avatars that represent. Bronca, a hot tempered lesbian Lenape woman in her 60s who runs an art gallery represents the Bronx and is the knowledge keeper of the city, while Manny, a young, queer Black man with no memory of his background represents Manhattan and is a ruthless defender of the City.
If the place you’re writing about was embodied, who would they be? How is your setting shaping your story? What are your character’s relationships to the place, and do they change over time? Who are the people that make up this place, and what are their personalities like? What are the tone and themes of the place you’re writing about? Are themes in your story physically embodied in your place? What does your place have to say? How do they say it?
Detail, detail, detail!
Sensory detail is what makes a place feel real. Make sure not just to focus on imagery, but on the other senses as well: sound, smell, touch, even taste. A fun exercise in revision is to take a couple pages of writing and color code each of the sensory details, with a different color for each sense. This way you can get a better picture of what kind of detail you’re already adding, and what you might want to add more of. This makes writing feel fuller, as well as drawing in readers who might be more attuned to different senses.
Another good exercise is just to practice writing descriptively about whatever place you’re in, setting an intention to include as many sensory details as possible. You can also try imagining places you’ve been before and know well. You may be surprised which details are the ones that stick with you in your memory, and this kind of recognition is a helpful reminder that the most obvious details are not always the most interesting, or even the most descriptive. For example, when I remember waiting for the bus as an elementary schooler, it isn’t the putrid yellow color that sticks with me, it’s the smell of diesel exhaust.
From scanning Google maps in your research to drawing your own maps of a fictional town in rural America, worldbuilding can be one of the most exciting parts of writing. So don’t let it fall to the wayside!