I’m writing each week about the process of writing the second novel in my Flight of the Kestrel series, Adept.
I put the first chapter in to the Feedback Group of my Writers Circle, and one of my friends pointed out that my mind was already in the world of the Kestrel, and I expected my readers to be there too. There was so much that needed to be explained.
World building is important in any novel, even one set in the present.
The opening line ‘It was a dark and stormy night, ‘ is derided as clichéd and childish, but at least it sets the scene. As you plunge into the action, you already have a picture in your mind. For a novel set in an ordinary modern street that you would think everyone would understand, there are so many types of houses and flats, street furniture, lighting, front gardens or not, state of repair and cleanliness, before you even start on the neighbours. And what about the weather? Maybe it’s not a dark and stormy night, but the feel of the story will be very different if it’s sunny or raining.
When it comes to settings that your readers will not be familiar with, you need to do more work. It could be a foreign country that your readers may not have visited, or set in the past. The customs will be different, the way the police and other organisations work may be different, or there may not be police at all. Not only does this set the backdrop for your novel, it can provide plot points of its own.
Science fiction takes all this to another level. At the extreme there may be nothing familiar at all. The novel Viscous Circle by Piers Anthony is about beings who are rings. Getting readers absorbed and identifying with characters that strange takes a lot of skill. That’s why most science fiction and fantasy has characters that are humanoid – it’s much easier for the writer to get to grips with and readers to understand.
Another problem for writers, and the opposite direction, is working out how much of the world of the novel to tell readers and where in the novel to put it. The temptation for beginners is to do a huge information dump to bring the readers up to speed, but they get bored with all the explanation and want the action to start. They will probably give up.
A lot of your background information will not appear in your novel at all, but you need to know it so that you have an instinctive feel for the people and places. They have to be real to you so you can make them real for the reader as the novel progresses. I have actually used a lot of my background material for blog posts to arouse interest in the first book, Intruders, before it comes out. Here are a sample few:
There are posts about each individual crew member (links in the crew summary post), and each alien species, and some other background too. You get the idea.
The only problem is that people reading the second book will not necessarily have read the first, or may not remember the details. I have to find where to put that information in all over again in book two, but this time, not only try not to interfere with the action, but not to bore the people who have just read book one!