Worldbuilding is one of the most exciting elements of writing, but it can be equally intimidating. It's easy for writers to invest themselves in the process of describing their story's world, whether they're diving into research for a real-world location or building an entire land from scratch.
Determining which of the two your WIP's setting falls into can be easy. It can be instinctual, just a sense of what works best for the author's process and what is the most fitting for their story. Genre can influence this decision. Fantasy writers might be inclined to craft their world from the ground up, while writers of a cozy mystery or historical fiction piece may have their characters dwell in real locations like Cape Cod or Rome.
Then there are those who find themselves somewhere in the middle, like myself. I write historical romance, and although I've used real-world locations like London and Gretna Green and reference others, I'll also incorporate fictional towns found in IRL counties throughout England, say for example a character who grew up in a made-up village a day's ride from York.
Others might fictionalize an IRL spot, like introducing their audience to a secret coven of witches populating Vancouver.
No matter if you choose to stick with using IRL settings or crafting them yourself, or decide to take the hybrid approach and blend real and fictional settings together, each kind of setting has its pros and cons, which we'll be examining in a short series here on the blog.
In this first post, we'll be exploring those of IRL settings.
Pro — Researching Is Easier Than Ever
Worldbuilding can be intense because regardless of whether it is a real location or a fictional one, the writer has to build up their settings to the smallest detail. The smallest details may not make it into the final manuscript, but the writer often needs to have them in the back of their mind and be consistent so a town once said to be 20 square miles in size is later said to be 40 square miles.
Using real locations makes it easier to find this information. Thanks to the internet, many primary resources are just a few clicks away. Various documents and records may be found on town websites or in library databases. Some bloggers highlight things to do and hidden gems in that area, and local newspapers might bring ongoing issues to light.
And research tactics aren't limited to printed media.
Life Is Strange was helmed by a French studio, though the episodic video game is set in Oregon. Developers used resources like Google Maps to "tour" towns similar to their concepts for Arcadia Bay, which heightened its true-to-life small-town feel and helped players orient themselves quickly.
These days, many museums offer virtual tours and other resources to take guests through history from the comfort of their living room. Colonial Williamsburg frequently shares videos of actors portraying historical figures sitting down to talk about their lives (in character), sometimes with a Q&A portion, as well as close-up looks into the various trades like carpentry and blacksmithing.
Research has become easier than ever, making it easier than ever to craft a realistic portrayal of your story's setting. You just need to know where to look!
Con — Getting Lost In Research Is Easier Than Ever
With all of the research at our fingertips, it doesn't take long to cannonball into the rabbit hole. Having access to so many little details can consume us as we spend an afternoon looking into sewage systems or the average height of a person living in that town, even if they are irrelevant.
Con — Exposition Express
Having access to virtually unlimited information gives us a lot to work with. It's exciting to come across a little-known tidbit of information that feels like the key to bringing your story to life.
Research can be a thrill ride. That rush of finally tracking down that one piece I've been hunting after countless hours of staring at screens or combing through lengthy books is unrivaled. It's a well-earned victory.
There have also been a few instances where a passage I've stumbled across in my research for one project inspires a completely new WIP.
The thrill of research can also pose problems. Even though something may be particularly interesting to us as a writer or novice historian, they might be irrelevant to the story as a whole, risking the chance of bogging it down with explanations and interrupting the flow to intersperse fun facts like a pop-up music video on VH1.
Wanting to share our findings is writer nature. Maybe it goes back to math classes where we had to show our work in order to get credit on assignments or listing every resource used in an English essay's bibliography no matter how frequently referenced. We want to demonstrate that we have done our research, that we are well-informed or credible. As a historical writer, it's especially important to me and likely important to my intended readers who may also be familiar with the time period. Blunders in a work of historical fiction can influence its reception, especially if it's a major detail or something considered common knowledge even outside of those who actively study the time period.
Having my fiction described as "well-researched" is such a compliment, but I always worry it may resemble a textbook because of the research I've done for it.
Like many aspects of storytelling, it's a balance.
Con — The Pressure of Authenticity
Accuracy can be a priority for writers, and setting is no exception. We want to paint a vivid picture with our words, enabling readers to step into our worlds.
But what about readers who may already be there?
Using real locations can come with a desire if not a pressure to get it right.
Just as a professional mechanic may call you out if your character's method of fixing their rusty jalopy would not actually work as described or a history professor might point out an inaccuracy in detailing a prominent figure's greatest achievement, residents living in your story's setting will know if you've gotten something wrong. Again, some will acknowledge creative liberties or be willing to suspend belief and overlook it, but some glaring errors can cause poor reception of the work. Not including the town's beloved pizzeria is one thing, but a scene in which a character describes the mountains seen from their childhood bedroom in Wichita might feel off because Kansas isn't known for its vast mountain ranges.
From my experience, locals are more likely to recommend a book to friends if they feel it is a faithful or accurate portrayal of their region, even if you're not always showing off the best side of it or viewing it through a critical lens.
Writers using fictional settings are susceptible to infodumps and exposition, too, as I'll touch on more next week.
Pro — Touching Base With Townsfolk
Although having this aforementioned pressure in mind might make it harder to incorporate IRL locations in your work, getting it right might not be so difficult to even from a distance.
One tip often given to writers is to embark on "field trips" and explore the region their WIP is set in to really acquaint themselves with the place and sink themselves into everything that makes it special. This isn't always doable.
Pandemic aside, these excursions are often easier said than done. Travel can be expensive, especially if you're writing something set in another country or a long ways away, and making the arrangements can be exhausting between budgeting, booking flights and hotels if necessary, and little things leading up to departure.
While I definitely support setting off on writing adventures when you can, there are a few less expensive and easier options out there.
Social media platforms can allow you to connect with people in the region of your setting, whether it be through a post in a Facebook group, Tweeting out a question, sending DMs back and forth, or having the chance to sit down for an interview via Skype or Zoom.
Several content creators film walks and hikes, telling their audience about various flora and fauna they encounter along the way.
If your characters live in Dallas, a quick "day in the life" search on YouTube brings up vloggers taking their viewers around an average day throughout the city.
This kind of video is also helpful for your character's careers. I watched a bunch of them before interviewing for my current retail job so I could have a better understanding of the typical shift at that store. Training materials might also be found online.
Connecting with the people who know your setting best is a great way to not only get a feel for the area, but to get a sense of what is most important to them, what they love or wish they could change. Make note of interesting tidbits and things mentioned more than once because those will be a key element of transporting your readers.
There's also the chance your informants may volunteer to be beta readers or critique partners as you work on the project. Even if writing is not their area of expertise, their insight as readers familiar with your setting can make your descriptions feel like home.
Con — Not As Much Wiggle Room
As I'll be covering in greater depth next week, one of the appeals for fictional locations is their limitlessness. Writers diving into this kind of world building have the power to create whatever they want or fancy.
This is not something as readily available in IRL locations.
Even in scenarios where the story is set in a fictional town in a real location, like a made-up village in Ireland, there are still "rules" that need to be followed and less room to "play" than would be found in an entirely fictitious place.
Pro — Staying In The Zone
To explain this point, I'm taking a slight sidestep away from writing to talk about one of my other favorite pastimes: video games. Specifically, The Sims.
The Sims is a game I've played on and off for years. The thing is, I rarely stick with a save file for long. I love creating my Sims and get even more invested in the design and decoration of their lot. But after that? I'll play for an afternoon or two before dropping it entirely.
Over time, I've realized one of the reasons for this is the open-ended nature of the game. The Sims is known for letting you play however you want. If there isn't a feature existing in-game already, there's a probable chance someone out there has made the mod for it, letting you customize the game even further.
Candidly speaking, I've purchased too many of the various expansions and stuff packs for someone who really doesn't play the game all that much. Though there is usually a significant component I'm interested in or even consider essential for a better experience, like the option of adding cats and dogs, seasons and holidays, and of course vampires and mermaids, each installment gives me the hope of finally finding the thing that makes me commit to a save file.
Having a more defined path or objective can make a game easier to navigate and orient oneself in, and the same can be said for worldbuilding in writing.
Real locations come with parameters, which in turn offer structure. While this may feel limiting to some writers, others might find it easier to stay on track when these boundaries are established. IRL settings, especially those with plentiful resources, lay out what you have to work with. Creative liberties are not disallowed but are kept from getting too out of hand and potentially overwhelming.
Setting the scene is a formidable task, and deciding what kind of scene you're setting is not always easy. Some stories are better suited for being woven into existing places, and others favor the invention of fictional lands. Determining which path to take may not be straightforward, but the pros and cons of either can help guide you.
Stay tuned for Part II of this series, in which we'll be tackling the benefits and potential pitfalls of fictional settings.