My DH and I were recently watching an episode of Battlestar Galactica, where Felix, injured in the ship’s hospital, was singing to alleviate the pain. His songs were interspersed throughout the episode – the melodies were similar in many ways to traditional Anglo-Celtic folk songs, and yet they weren’t, with unexpected shifts in rhythm and tone. I’m assuming they were written for the show, and, although I didn’t catch all the words, they seemed to belong fully to the world that the writers have created for the series, as well as adding another layer to Felix’s character. One of the things I enjoy about Battlestar Galactica is the attention that has been given to world-building, and the many, many subtle touches that bring a consistency to it and ‘fill-out’ the world – small things, like the shape of their paper, through to the more significant things, such as the religions and the ways in which the colonies have different cultures.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s fantasy, science fiction, historical or contemporary fiction; there is world-building to at least some degree in every novel, even when the setting is somewhere real and well-known. As authors, we need to bring that setting alive for our readers, not merely as factual description, but the world as our characters experience it.
The opening scene of my first romantic suspense novel, As Darkness Falls, was born in a short, vivid dream I had early one morning; a female detective, in an isolated area of bush, facing a mob of people she’d known in childhood, trying to dissuade them from attacking a man suspected of a terrible crime. That dream became the inspiration for the prologue of the book; but then, as well as working out who she was, where she was, and what was going to happen next, I had to create the community and landscape in which the book is set.
I live in ‘the bush’, ie, rural Australia, and travel a lot through small towns. Most of them are struggling; changing social and economic patterns, the long drought, merging of local councils into regional ones, withdrawal of services, the lack of water for crops and grazing… Where there were once thriving communities, there are now main streets lined with empty shopfronts, houses falling into ruin, few employment opportunities, and a dearth of young people, who have no reason to stay.
Some communities have risen to the challenge, reinvented themselves, created ventures that bring tourists or residents to the town, but I knew my fictional community wasn’t one of those (at least, not yet!) To start with, all I had was that it was small, isolated, and that there’d been two terrible crimes already – so, not a happy, well-adjusted place! I used a real area – a huge wilderness of native scrub forest – as the landscape inspiration for the town’s setting, so that I could be consistent with details of wildlife and so on, but changed the names of the places and was vague about the exact location. The town itself, and the residents, are entirely fictional.
It’s been an interesting process, creating this community over the course of two (and a half!) books. I’ve gradually found its history, its characters, the rhythms of life there, the challenges it faces, and how, and who, responds to those challenges. I’ve enjoyed viewing the town and the surrounding landscape through the eyes of my protagonists, too. In As Darkness Falls, the heroine, Bella, returns to Dungirri, her old home town. Brought up by her father, a drover, she knows the bush and the plains intimately, is at home in the wilderness, and often ‘sees’ the landscape with layers of memories. By contrast, the hero, Alec, is city born and bred, and frequently reminded of the unfamiliarity of this environment. Kris, the local police sergeant heroine of Dark Country, alternates between despair and hope for the community she’s lived in for five years, but considers herself part of. Whereas Gil, the outcast returned, sees himself as separate from it, yet is at home in the surrounding bush.
The third book in the series will be the last. While I now ‘know’ far more about Dungirri and its people than will appear in the books, three romantic suspense plots with murders and associated drama are, I think, quite enough for any small community to endure! My fourth book will be set in another community, in another area… and I’m looking forward to creating that world, and finding its residents and their stories.