World Building: Everyday Life

Everyday life is a delight to create.  This is how your characters live:  what they do, what they own, and what they build.

It doesn’t matter whether I’m writing a historical novel about the antebellum South, action-adventure in outer space, or epic fantasy, I still have to think about all the props around my characters.  I have to know the details of what they eat, wear, play with, carry, live in, and use for money.  There are so many aspects to consider it can be overwhelming.  Do you start with the saddling of a war horse or cutting herbs for the stewpot?

Often my students bring me written copy featuring lavish, highly detailed, well-thought-out settings.  Clearly they’ve devoted a great deal of time and attention to their invented village and can tell me everything about it from the moment a band of three brothers first crossed the river and selected the spot and felled eighteen mighty trees to make three tiny cabins, and the village prospered because it grew indigo on the banks of the river, and the women dyed linen dark blue, and their husbands sold the cloth for six pieces of silver a yard, and who married whom, and how many generations of the same family have produced a village headman since, and why a plague four years ago killed all the firstborn daughters so that now the village’s future is in peril, and how the inhabitants must decide whether to stop growing the indigo plants for which they’re famous and go into making beer to sell at market, or ….

Someone, stop me now!

Where’s the story?  Where’s the plot?  Who’s the protagonist?

The biggest peril of creating everyday life is how seductive it is.  It’s like Odysseus and his crew trapped on the island of lotus-eaters; you can’t seem to escape.  Writers who fall into this snare never seem to get any actual writing done.

Making sound decisions about how characters live their ordinary lives is so much easier if you keep boundaries in place.  There’s no need to go into how a sword is made from the moment the ore is dug from a mountain, forged into steel, cut and hammered into a blade, tempered by fire, etc. if all you need is for your protagonist to pick it up and swing it.

So flip the process over.  Instead of starting with the world, design the basic structure of the plot first and determine the needs of the characters.  Then let the world building grow around them, as required.


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4 responses to “World Building: Everyday Life

  1. Great advice my friend. I always got stuck in setting or in researching the blasted setting. That was even worse for me. Now, when I’m feeling “itchy” in my own life, I just make up one of these settings as play while I’m driving someone back or forth to school. It’s a good way to give my mind play and like witch’s fog, it dissipates when I pull into my driveway, and my mind is refreshed.

    However, if I’m truly writing, I start with the plot first. There’s always time to embellish.~~Dee

  2. Deb

    Plotting and world building are great escapes during mundane tasks. I like to create character names while I’m driving. If I get too caught up in plotting behind the wheel, sometimes I have no recollection of the drive at all. Not, perhaps, such a wise thing …

    — Deb

  3. Justin Misiorek

    Ms. Chester i absolutely loved your alien chronicles and have read all three multiple times. I have also referred them to friends. I came across some information saying that 9 books were intended to be published. I was just inquiring if you knew anything about the second trilogy, or where i could find more information about these amazing books. Thanks for providing me with hours of entertainment and an incredible story. I truly appreciate it.

    • Yes, you’re right. The original plan for THE ALIEN CHRONICLES was 9 books, but after the first three came out the editors behind the project decided not to continue. So although I introduced and developed the characters of Ampris’s children, who were to continue the series with a different author, it just didn’t happen. It’s a shame, because I’ve heard from so many people over the years who really seemed to enjoy the books. Thanks, though, for your support and referrals to friends!

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