Monday, September 25, 2006

Worldbuilding - It's not Just for Sci-Fi

Romanceland is a strange sort of place, airy and ephemeral. Setting often does not seem to have the same sense of importance as it does in other genres. Most historicals are set in a vague and misty "past" - usually European and usually peopled by lords and ladies who travel about in coaches or on horseback. Contemporaries often take place in recognisable modern cities - where would chick-lit be without NYC? Where would paranormals be without New Orleans? - but rare is the heroine who lives in Levittown, Baton Rouge or any of our fair nation's less picturesque urban centers. Redlands, California, anyone? How about Henderson, Nevada? They're both really quite charming.

I often wonder if the ubiquity of certain settings - New York for chick-lit; quaint, generic small towns for the inspirationals; England for historicals - occurs because it is easier for the author to focus on the story when she uses settings that are already familiar to most of her readers. A Regency set in London, for example, often seems to require only a few cursory mentions of Almack's, Hyde Park, and Bond Street to sketch in the backdrop. Set a similar story in Edinburgh, and the writer has a lot more work on her hands.

Musing on the subject of setting, I began to wonder if an author who chooses an unusual historical or contemporary setting has to do as much, or almost as much world-building as SF/F writers who create their worlds from imagination. Both writers must familiarize the reader with the lay of the land, the local customs, and whatever bits of local history are pertinent to the story. Both writers must make the setting intriguing enough to draw the reader in, and believable enough to keep them from hurling the book against the wall in disgust (ask me, some time, why I so rarely read novels that are set in L.A., and I will point out the dent in my living room wall).

Added to the responsibility of rendering unfamiliar settings intriguing instead of intimidating, is the research authors must do when they use a real locale, instead of one they invented for the story. I started this post intending to explore the importance of world building in Science Fiction and Fantasy novels, but the more I think about it, the more I appreciate the the unsung world builders of historical and contemporary novels who make real places live and breathe as part of their stories.