I've been adventuring a bit more recently. Last week saw me up in the Adirondack mountains, upstate New York, and the week before was Washington D.C. - both impressive and beautiful in very different ways. Some of the monuments in D.C. - Lincoln, Jefferson, FDR, Martin Luther King Jr., the Korean War Vets. - are simply stunning. On the other hand, the peace and tranquility of mist rising over a lake in the mountains really takes some beating.
I love that the same country has such vastly different landscapes - and different approaches, too. One is wild and preserved; the other controlled and gentrified.
Can I apply this clumsy metaphor to writing? Oh, I'm gonna try.
The idea of "worldbuilding" - a term generally used to describe and encompass the entire setting of a book, the entire fictional universe in which the story takes place - has at its center the key to what it means. Building. The best stories take place in worlds that are complete, living, with standard rules and a logic, of any sort, which remains consistent. Tolkien, JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Neil Gaiman, Diane Wynne Jones, Terry Pratchett ... they all understood the importance of this and they all put in the effort required to make a complete world, stretching far beyond the borders of the action. The smallest details and the largest cities all get the same treatment: they have to work, make sense, and be self sustaining without too much authorial management.
In a way that's a good way to look at it: don't be a micro-manager. Once you've set them up, worlds should keep ticking without you stepping in too much to explain away inconsistencies, leaps in logic, and flaws.
Wild worlds still need rules. Calm, gentrified worlds still need danger and darkness.
Even contemporary, real-world settings don't get to rest on their laurels. Setting your book in modern day New York City? Great! But you still need to know which type. Believe me, there's more than one NYC. The characters inform that. Bankers don't move in the same world as single moms. Street peddlers don't see the same city as heiresses. You start from that one point, that ground zero, and you expand out, creating, writing, fact checking, and keeping things steady and consistent.
I've said that more than once, now, but it's important; far more important than making things believable (this is a story, after all) is making things consistent. A world shouldn't break its own rules simply for the sake of plot. That's lazy, in my opinion. I wrote about that a few posts back.
So, build your worlds - don't just plonk characters down in them.
P.S. Absolute Write October Blog Chain still going strong, and churning out some really great short stories.If you're reading this on the main page of my blog, just look at the post beneath this one. If you're reading it through a direct link, my own contribution, and the list of other contributors, is right here. Thanks.