When you read a good writer the world, for that moment, can seem no other way. Crime and Punishment is imbued with Dostoyevsky’s sense of the world. If Tolstoy written Crime and Punishment, we would have visited a different Russia. One might argue that Tolstoy couldn’t have written Crime and Punishment; but Crime and Punishment is so imbued with Dostoyevsky’s sense of the world it’s almost impossible to imagine the book written by anybody else.
To write, then, is not just to tell a story, but also to create a world in which your characters live. These worlds can be ordinary like the world of Ferrante, fantastic, like the world of Calvino, or somewhere in between, like Remainder by McCarthy. Worlds are shaped as much as by what is left out as by what is left in.
All readers are aware of them subliminally This is why some mystery readers choose English cozies and others choose techno-thrillers. These worlds include qualities of weather cityscapes, landscapes, and sensate objects, ranging from fruit to velvet. They also include the singular vision of the writers. (The Age of Wire and String by Ben Marcus is an example—a book so good that many voice-driven writers say it made them want to give up writing.)
On might say that a world is ground and narrative is figure. Interesting fiction is a balance of world and narrative. But unseasoned writers often focus on narrative so characters hanging in empty space. If you have trouble creating a world, spy on the way you pay attention.
Here are a few ways to spy
The Inner World
Make the journal dangerous: Discover what you don’t know about your day instead of what you already know: We all have a running story about our day, based on what we know we did. (Had to teach a class. Couldn’t find my keys. Almost late and couldn’t find a place on the UC Campus. Etc.) But If I allow myself to remember my day quickly, I’ll see a few images, or hear a few bits of dialogue that have made an impression. (The green rim on the white plate. “Those McNuggets are real good,” he said.)
This quick log, has a lot of benefits: You’ll begin to have a lexicon of what interests you. You’ll remember the day more vividly than you’d remember a blow-by-blow account of your day. You’ll begin to have a lexicon of what interests you. It will take a few minutes at any time of day.
Discover what you don’t know about your dreams. Freud, Jung and a lot of other people have told us how to understand dreams and you may rush to understand the symbolism or decide how it relates to your life. But if you review your dream quickly and write down a few images, you’ll begin to have another lexicon.
You may never use any of these things in your fiction—but you’ll start to focus different. These exercises bring you closer to the way you pay attention, to the concrete sensory things that interest you and your imagination.
The Outer World
Eavesdrop: You’ll be forgiven if you write good dialogue as a result. People often speak elliptically and poetically. Their voices are the chorus of the worldMedia
Media. Do you ever look at the Enquirer at the supermarket–the most surreal literary fiction in this country? Or race to see what the NY Times is reporting about fashion? Have you read posts like “Twenty Movie Stars Who Now Work in Offices”? The easiest way to do this is to look at Show All History on your computer. (Be honest!)
Research. Create a list of questions about your outer world, with particular attention to a sense of place. For example: What houses have I lived in? What streets have I walked on? What do I remember about the last room I saw?
As must be clear, a world often depends on a sense of place, or places. You can play with this by changing your perspective on a place. For instance, imagine what it’s like to walk down a familiar street as if you were from the future or the past, a spy on a mission from another country.
Most people don’t think that what they notice is interesting because it’s what they’ve always noticed. The more you pay attention to what you notice, the more you’ll understand that no one else has your perspective. Appreciating what you notice (and not longer thinking it’s a boring, obvious perspective) is the key to creating an interesting fictional world.