Novelists create fictional worlds for their story to take place in, even those novels set in the real world. The best world-building makes readers feel like they could be reading about an actual place, even if it’s completely imaginary. While some people find it difficult to get into the extensive details of Middle-Earth provided by J.R.R. Tolkien, for example, for legions of fans it’s almost heart-breaking to finish the final chapter and have to leave the hobbits, elves, and the Shire behind when the back cover has been closed.
Tolkien spent years creating his many-layered world, from different cultures and their history (like the dwarves, who loved to mine for gold and had a reason for hating the forest elves), to vividly-imagined landscapes and even several languages and songs. Tolkien even created his own artwork to depict the worlds within worlds his characters inhabited.
It took Tolkien twelve years to complete his masterpiece, and not many writers will follow in his footsteps, but we also have much easier access to research than he did, at our fingertips.
Authors may put together thousands of words in backstory, a large part of which may not make it into their book, but it nevertheless creates a realism in the writer’s mind that they can refer to again and again. Think about how many details and layers to our actual world.
Of course, writers don’t need to build that complex a picture, and if you enjoy research it’s easy to get distracted by and lost in all the material you can pull off the internet, to the point where the book doesn’t get written. But whatever world you’re creating, the details you do put in the book need to be plausible enough that the reader doesn’t get unintentionally ejected from the story by something that doesn’t work.
A photo like the one I included above could provide a lot of information if you were writing a scene involving an old cemetery in Europe. There are so many useful details in it — the hoary old trees, the puddling of rain on the gravel path (from which you might surmise how heavily the rain was falling), sagging old tombstones scattered seemingly randomly around the grounds (rather than the neat rows of our North American cemeteries), the pale stone of the old church looming like a ghost among the trees.
I’ll write more on this subject in the future, but for now I’d recommend the World-Building Guide offered as a free resource by Reedsy on their blog: Worldbuilding Guide & Template: Your #1 Resource.
I invite you to imagine a story around the photo. I can tell you what I was doing there — walking through the grounds to get to the Hill of Tara — but you could think of any other number of reasons why someone might be there. Have fun with it!
All photos are by me unless otherwise specified and all rights reserved. E. Jurus