Painter Bob Ross once said, and I’m paraphrasing, that the first tube of paint you buy comes with a license to create whatever you want. The same is true for writers. Instead of paint, our license comes with that first blank page. The page is our canvass, words our paint. While Mr. Ross painted scenes that look familiar–mountains, rivers, meadows, and the like—he always said they were figments of his imagination. Again, I see the parallel to writing, particularly speculative fiction. World building is the term we throw around a lot—the need to create a fictional world. Sometimes our stories take place beyond Earth and sometimes they don’t. In either case, we’re still spinning them from ether.
Once upon a time, authors created fictional cities, towns, even countries instead of using existing ones. Today, we still come across the occasional: ‘set in a fictional town of…’ but I think that’s becoming the exception to the rule. More and more often, writers are setting their stories in real places. Not only do I appreciate that, I’ve done it myself. It creates an immediate familiarity for the reader, but at a price. Unless the author is incredibly lucky, he probably hasn’t been to every one of the places he uses. And if he has, I doubt he’s spent enough time to truly understand their quirks and character.
In my book, I set a key scene on a Himalayan mountain called Kanchenjunga. I’ve never been there. I researched it, but that’s not substitute for an actual visit. So, what’s an author to do? The answer is to create a fictional place inside a real one, making it as realistic as possible. That’s the important part—as realistic as possible. The truth is, it’s not real. It’s an alternative reality, as much speculative fiction as Middle Earth, or the Wizarding World, or Narnia. I HAVE been to Tokyo, but that was over 20 years ago. While there, I didn’t go to Ginza station.
So how do we deal with all of that? The trick is adding enough description to, as Bob Ross said, “give the impression of something”, without overdoing it. Too much detail can be a problem. It’s a difficult tightrope to walk. As a writer, I hope my readers get enough of a feel for the setting, while understanding that my Japan, Miami, and Nepal are as fictional as my sky castle, volcanic palace, mountain-sized fortresses—not to mention talking dragons, thunderbirds, and stone giants. The characters’ pasts and cultures too. While editing a later draft, I stressed over cultural issues, correct language usage, synchronizing time zones, etc.
After one frustrating bout of writing, my daughter frowned at me and gave me a great piece of writing advice. ‘Dad,’ she said. ‘Your characters are ancient gods. Their culture and language are right. They’re the standard. They’re problem is that they’ve been out of touch. It would be like King Arthur showing up today. He’d act weird. He’d talk funny too. At least to us.”
Good advice, though not as she intended. What she meant was, either you buy what the author’s selling, or you don’t. She did, and if we writers deliver our best work, our readers probably will too.