If you ask anybody familiar with my body of work what I’m known for, there’s a good chance that worldbuilding is going to be on the list. From the rain-soaked streets of the coastal city of Seahaven in The Ravencrest Chronicles to the underground warrens of the city of Understone in The Tales of Durgan Stoutheart, I’m proud to say my readers have fallen in love with the worlds I’ve created.
But, two of my published books and the soon-to-be-released What Once Was Home are set on Earth. And no, it’s not an alternate Earth where I can do whatever I want with it; it’s our Earth. So the question is, how do you worldbuild in a world that already exists?
Well, there’s a few ways to go about it. You’ve probably already read something by another author that has worldbuilding in the real world, but possibly never gave it any thought. Have you ever read anything by Stephen King? If you have, chances are it might have been set in Castle Rock, Derry, or Jerusalem’s lot; all three of which are fictional towns in Maine. That’s right, Stephen King is also a master worldbuilder. And no, there’s nothing he can’t do. (Are you going to tell him otherwise?)
Often when one thinks of worldbuilding, they think of crafting entire worlds drawn completely from the ether, such as Tolkien’s Middle Earth or Ed Greenwood’s Toril (the planet upon which The Forgotten Realms exist). But, crafting a fictional town in Maine can be considered worldbuilding.
Setting aside the fact that I started writing What Once Was Home first, the first book I finished with worldbuilding in the real world was Night Shift, book one of the Night Trilogy. This is a cyberpunk crime mystery set in the relatively near future where Los Angeles and its surroundings used to be. Pay attention to the end of that last sentence, because that’s the first tip for worldbuilding in the real world.
In more straightforward terms: wipe the map. Take a real place, give it a plausible disaster like the San Andreas Fault finally turning itself up to eleven, and then let humanity rebuild there.
Night Shift is set in the megalopolis of New Angeles. Much of the coastline has changed and everything had to be rebuilt from the ground up. I even kept some existing names and changed them around to keep that “Los Angeles feel.” San Bernardino is now known simply as Berdino, Santa Clarita is now Sanrita, and Simi Valley is now Simi Beach, because everything west of that is under water. Because everything was rebuilt, all of these places could be anything I wanted them to be. I didn’t have to do any research other than looking at a map, because I wiped everything from it before I started worldbuilding.
The next book I released set on Earth was Parting the Veil, and this was a whole different story. I was using real-world places alongside a real-world storyline. My research for this was extensive. Wilkins was going to walk through the Plaza de Armas in Lima, Peru? I better find a picture of the fountain in the center and describe it perfectly.
He and Richard walk across Jackson Square in New Orleans, Louisiana? Again, I better make it sound like I was standing there when I wrote the scene. This was the opposite of anything I’d ever done. But still, the book was praised in reviews for its worldbuilding.
This was actually a huge surprise to me! What worldbuilding? I thought. Then, in retrospect, I saw it. The ruins outside of the real village of Puerto Ocapa were completely fictional. The mysterious idol that I made up was in a real museum. The Spanish conquistador who left incoherent records of discovering some ancient culture never existed in real life. That culture, too, was my own creation. Although most scenes in the book occurred in a real 1939 and took place in a real-world location, from a library in Lima to a museum in New Orleans (both of which you can visit today); there were little bits of my unique version of the world in it. There are some other bits that go beyond this, and beyond the veil, but you’ll have to read the book to experience those.
This brings us to What Once Was Home, my upcoming post-apocalyptic novel. One might think this is a no-brainer: Take real-world places, throw a nuke at it, and describe the aftermath. That’s one way to do it, and it has worked very well in the past. But this book isn’t that story. This is an alien invasion where the aliens didn’t just wreck everything.
Also, it starts before the invasion. It’s set in the Appalachian Mountains of western North Carolina, and a little bit of eastern Tennessee; but it’s not all real. There are some very heavy liberties taken here.
Lewisburg is a fictional town, so right off the bat I’m taking a page from Stephen King’s playbook and plopping my own town onto the map. There are some nearby towns where I did the same thing, as well. We do end up visiting a real city, Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. I describe a few specifics from there, like a park right off the main strip that I’ve walked around myself, but for the most part there’s not a lot of details. The highway the characters travel to get there. I never name it, but it’s going in the right direction. The intersection they stop off at. I don’t name the other highway there, either. That’s the final tip: be vague. Does it matter if the truck stop is at the intersection of I-40 and Highway 451? (It’s not, or at least I have no idea if it is!)
The men tied the horses up to the guard rails at the end of the pumps, and then Jace and his team approached the storefront. The place had definitely been gone through, as the shelves were mostly bare. The few items that had been left behind were of little to no use to them, mostly novelties. As they were looking around, Jace heard a loud crash from the back room, as if something had been knocked over.
Does knowing the name of the highways change anything? What about the name of a specific motel in Pigeon Forge?
“Ladies and gentlemen of The Resistance,” Matheson cried out over the bullhorn. He was standing atop the roof of his headquarters, which was inside what used to be a small motel on the main strip in Pigeon Forge. The multiple rooms were ideal for offices and supply rooms, and the large parking lot was well suited to drills and assemblies such as this.
Here’s another tip beyond worldbuilding and into the actual narrative: don’t feel like you have to describe everything. Everybody’s been in a truck stop or a small motel. You don’t have to describe the whole layout, because the reader is going to fill in the blanks with their own mind. That’s one of the advantages of real world worldbuilding. Save the extra words for when the extra description really counts!
He could only see the ceiling, which was smooth black with interlocking panels, like the exterior of the object that had landed in the woods. […] He seemed to be in the center of a chamber, as the ceiling sloped downward in every direction an equal distance from the light above him. He thought he could make out the upper edge of a door or hatch on one wall […]. Otherwise, the room appeared to be empty.
Okay, so there’s something new! That’s where we slow down and really describe things. And yes, I cut some of it out to avoid spoilers!
Okay, that’s our little tangent on when to use descriptive details and when not to. Now back on topic.
So, we’ve seen a few ways to worldbuild in the real world. You can plop an entire fictional town onto the map, such as Stephen King’s Castle Rock and my own Lewisburg. You can wipe the map clean and rebuild, such as my New Angeles. You can sprinkle in your own details in a real setting, such as the bits of alternative history in Parting the Veil. And finally, you can mix things up like I do in What Once Was Home by placing some fictional locations and being vague about the details of the real ones.
There’s a lot that goes beyond just places in worldbuilding, but this gives us a good foundation to start with. Here’s a quick glimpse of how to color in a few details though and really make things come alive.
The city of New Angeles in Night Shift has “javamats”, basically high-tech vending machines for coffee. There’s a waitress in a diner that’s a robot. Everybody’s identification and bank account are tied to a bar code tattooed on their wrist. “Flesh bars” are popular entertainment establishments where you can have a virtual reality experience you wouldn’t want your mom to know about.
In the 1939 Earth of Parting the Veil, our heroes find ruins of a mysterious ancient culture. Carvings on the walls include uncanny eyes, tendrils, and images of people gathered around some central icon. There are things they find that I can’t describe because they are horribly indescribable (No, actually I can’t because of spoilers.) And there’s another reality just beyond our own, so we get to step out of the real world and into it for some time.
In What Once Was Home, necessity leads to innovation. Truck beds are turned into horse-drawn wagons. A wall is built of old cars, appliances, and other scrap. A militia turns an old lumber factory into a firebase. A park is turned into a corn field. An old library is turned into a schoolhouse.
So, we’ve looked at a few different ways to build new worlds within, on top of, or between the cracks of our own. I’ve also shared a few ways I’ve added life to those worlds. I once thought worldbuilding was something you did when you were going to channel your inner Tolkien and create an entire planet full of cultures and histories, but it’s clear that worldbuilding can be as simple as stopping off at a truck stop at the intersection of two unnamed highways.