Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Craft of Building Worlds

Just west of Panama City, in what is sometimes called the Redneck Riviera of Florida, there is a town that is anything but.  Rosemary Beach, with its adjoining Barrett Square, looks stolen from a European costal village. 

And that was just the point when the idea for the town was put to dirt, or in this case, sand, in 1995.

The town was built in a way that brings to mind exclusive jet setter destinations.  The south of France.  Greek Isles.  The West Indies.  All of their influence can be seen in the architechture and shops.  Real estate here is expensive; the clientele affluent.  When imagined, what threatened to turn into a mere knock-off had to be as authentic as possible because anything less would easily be sniffed out as a fraud by the well-traveled.

So in this way, Rosemary Beach began as something very contrived, even fake.  Normally, this sort of destination I see for what it is: a theme park.  Artificially flavored.  Something so shallow, one need only scratch the surface to reveal the forgery.

The thing is, I’ve scratched the surface at Rosemary Beach.  Sure, it doesn’t have that organic genesis found in the exotic destinations that inspired it, but the town, for better or worse, works.  It has become real. It has become the idea.

What the designers of Rosemary Beach did is what many authors seek to do every day they pick up a pen and put it to paper – make a world come alive.  When done poorly, the world is exposed for what it is – a cheap imitation.  But when done right, it can pull the you in; make you believe in the magic. 

When I look at Rosemary Beach I am reminded of why it works.  For me, it’s both the details and the lack of details, along with notes of familiarity.  Good world building defines enough and gives enough of a recognizable foundation that the one put into the world is capable of framing the narrative around the new aspects of the author's creation. 

The expereince should be somehow relateable.  It all must work together, too.  Things have to make sense, layer after layer.  People will believe the impossible, but they, however, won't believe the ridiculous. 

Lastly, the world builder leaves room for the imagination to work, grow, and evolve with the story.  After all, it’s nice to be included.  Good architects, like smart authors, know when to let go of the defining, the details, and allow you to make their creation your own, whether it be in your mind for a book or a streetside art and book shop in Barrett Square (see next post: Bookstore Spotlight: The Hidden Lantern). 

So authors, what’s your secret to solid world building?  And readers, what works for you?


  1. For me, solid world building isn't about the 'big picture'. It's about the little details--and I don't mean architectural features. I mean a candy bar wrapper skittering down a street when the wind blows. I mean the sound of a forklift backing up inside a warehouse. I mean the hard edge of an office chair and the coffee cup stain on a restaurant table cloth. Reader have the imagination to 'fill in the gaps'. It's the little things an author mentions in passing that breathes life into a setting.

  2. I've been struggling with world building right now. It's hard to know what to put on paper and what should remain in my mind. In other words, sometimes it's hard to know what's too much. And mostly, I think consistency is the key, like, you don't want to decide that everyone wear silk clothes but your hero goes in leather. :)

    Nice blog! Loved the design. Will be following!
    - EEV

  3. Thanks for the comments! World building is a funny thing. It's hard to define the parameters, and even hard to describe how to do it, but it's always easy to show someone a bad example of it.