Creating Fictional Worlds:
The Strange, Exotic or Unfamiliar
Susan Fletcher is the author of Alphabet of Dreams (2007 Oregon Book Award), Shadow Spinner, Walk Across the Sea, and the Dragon Chronicles series, of which Ancient, Strange, and Lovely was just released. She is a repeat speaker for the Northwest Author Series, and frequent workshop presenter at the Willamette Writers Conference.
Ms. Fletcher writes historical and fantasy novels for young adults, both of which require the creation of (add rimshot here) strange, exotic, or unfamiliar settings. When creating historical settings, she does extensive research to get the period right. However, to allow present day readers to cross the boundary into the past, the author must rely on her imagination to describe what it would be like to actually be present at that time and place. Similarly, when creating a magical and weird setting for a fantasy novel, a touch of reality makes it more accessible to the reader.
So -- when recreating a historical setting where horses were the primary means of transportation, consider the amount of manure all those horses would leave behind and the associated flies and odor. A sensory detail one doesn't get from the lovely images of a Merchant Ivory film.
When creating a whole new fantasy world, use real world settings that can be loosely translated into the mystical setting to provide the sensory details that will draw in the reader. For example, turning the regimens and traditions of real English public schools into Hogwarts.
To help the author develop the feeling of the historic or imaginary setting, Ms. Fletcher suggests using pictures, music, and maps. Whether the pictures are found in a travel book, a calendar, or an issue of National Geographic -- they can help the author create the atmosphere for the story. Similarly, music can inspire the mood and feeling of the period or location. Ms. Fletcher makes a playlist for her iPod and suggests movie soundtracks as an excellent source of music written to establish mood and setting. Maps assist the author in creating realistic terrain for a fantasy world or establish the genuine topography of an historical setting.
Ms. Fletcher conducts research for both historical and fantasy worlds using online search engines, libraries, book stores, reference librarians, and friends and family. She also opens herself to serendipity and enjoys prowling the library stacks as well as used book stores. One never knows what tidbit will be uncovered and perhaps change the whole direction of the story. Ms. Fletcher also suggests using experts to fill in knowledge gaps or to verify accuracy. She recommends contacting the expert after much of the research and/or writing has been done so as not to waste his or her time. Depending on the situation, you may ask the expert to review a specific scene, your entire manuscript, or request a demonstration of the activity required for a scene.
If possible, a visit to the location of your historical novel (or a setting similar to the world of your fantasy story) can expose the author to sensory details that one just can't get from a book. Ms. Fletcher went to Oregon Caves National Park and a lava tube in central Oregon to research cave dwellings for her dragons. She also had the opportunity to visit Iran to experience the setting for Alphabet of Dreams.
Of course, one of the problems of doing all this research to create a realistic setting for your novel is the desire to use it all. After all, we will find so many cool details that we want to share with the reader. Fantasy novels have the additional burden of describing a fantastical new world to the reader. This can all lead to the dreaded "Expository Lump." Also known as the "Information Dump."
There's nothing like lengthy paragraphs of detailed exposition to put a reader to sleep.
Instead, Ms. Fletcher advices we "grind it fine." Insert the details about the story world in small doses -- as needed for the reader to grasp the scene. Hook the reader first, then once he or she wants to know more about your interesting character and unfamiliar location you can insert the details a bit at a time. Exposition still may be needed, but you might be able to keep it brief and less frequent.
Consider inserting the gems of data in the midst of action. Keep your characters busy doing things typical of the time and place they occupy. It will make scenes more interesting and convey details about the world in which your characters live.
Imbed the information in the character's emotions. Take advantage of the character's (and reader's) curiosity. Change the reader's mind as the character learns more and amends his or her feelings. Filter the world you've created through the point of view character.
In summary, Ms. Fletcher advised us that the author can assist the reader in crossing the boundary into the imaginary world of our novel (historical or fantastic) by using action, emotion, and sensory detail.
By the way, Ms. Fletcher is currently researching Renaissance Venice and would be delighted to hear from experts on the subject as well as referrals to reference materials. She's following her own advice by letting others know what she's working on. :-)