As I wrap up the Riven trilogy, an urban fantasy that borrows from steam punk and other, darker origins, I thought it would be a fun exercise (for myself if nobody else) to go back and look at how the idea for the story translated into a “world” – Riven is set in an alternate WW1 timeline, though the war and Earth itself are largely background to the titular locale.
I tend to write with the setting furthering the story rather than the other way around. In other words, I have an idea for a plot (in this case – a person ensures the dead actually move on rather than stick around and cause trouble) and then build a setting that creates an interesting backdrop for that plot. Eventually, of course, the setting informs developments. Kind of like deciding to have chicken for dinner, and then, for a setting, going with barbecue. Now that you’ve decided on the grill as your setting, that may inform other elements of your meal (grilling vegetables, or choosing to eat outside, for example).
So there it was, the idea. Now I could have set the story in the modern era – hunting dead spirits with shotguns and computers would be kind of fun, but didn’t seem to make much sense with what my version of the “world of the dead” would be. It wasn’t a copy of Earth, and things like electricity wouldn’t make sense because what would produce them? I had to work with the kind of things that could be created with a minimal amount of effort, which meant low tech.
Once I’d decided on “low tech”, I let the planned tone and mood of the books inform the setting. I wasn’t making a happy, frizzy piece – this was the world of the dead, set in WW1 and the flu outbreaks after all. Therefore, creating a bright and colorful world would strike a strange contrast with the rest of the story. So Riven became gray, dark, and haunting, with danger and hidden mysteries lurking in the shadows.
With the color and type of place put together, I could actually start playing with specifics. I liked the feel of a city, with its multitude of buildings haunted by the dead providing all kinds of fun possibilities. Especially as I looked at my own plot and planned arc of the trilogy. Beyond that, other places (like the Mountain) and areas beyond the city grew as I fleshed out the rest of the story.
I want to emphasize that last bit – fleshed out the rest of the story. Some authors might enjoy building every little piece of their world before writing the first word. I’m not one of those (and there’s nothing wrong with it). I prefer to start with a loose map and organically fill it in as the characters make their way through. I’m often discovering new things about my worlds as the characters find them, and many of those pieces become the best parts.
All in all, the world that a reader finally sees is built gradually. It doesn’t present itself fully-formed, like an oasis appearing in a creative desert. No, just like the stories themselves, a setting grows one thought at a time. One day, you find your characters have a home. A real, living, breathing place with a soul and a history.
Then you get to go and visit it.