Building the world of your novel

Very gothic-looking church and graveyard near the Hill of Tara, Ireland

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

You say viridian, I say verdigris

Shades of green in an Irish forest

Did you know that there are 171, 146 words1 in use in the English language, plus another 47,1561 obsolete words? For writers, language is a rich and delightful playground. Like the great old radio dramas (The Shadow, Philo Vance, Dimension X, and the famously infamous War of the Worlds), we use ‘theatre of the mind’ to engage the imaginations of our readers.

The Foley artists who created the sound effects that helped radio audiences see the action and the settings in their minds used all kinds of techniques to replace the lack of visuals. Authors describe the action and settings, providing prose keyed to readers’ five senses, and one of these revolves around colour imagery.

I’ve always loved the lushly-coloured old movies filmed in Technicolor, ever since I first saw The Wizard of Oz, made in 1939.

The Technicolor process was actually a series of improvements beyond the British film industry’s Kinemacolor, starting in the 1930s. The three-color version was known for its new highly saturated color, and was used by Hollywood for the blockbusters pictures, like the Wiz, The Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn, Gone with the Wind..

For The Wizard of Oz, the colour of Dorothy’s shoes was changed from silver in the books by L. Frank Baum to ruby specifically to take advantage of the new colour advances. It was a small, but wise decision – those ruby slippers became ultra-famous and iconic. In 1989, to honour the 50th anniversary of the movie, Harry Winston Co. even created a replica version, decorating them with approximately 1,500 carats in rubies and an additional 25 carats in diamonds. They’ve been valued at $3 million.

Colours are one of the ways we understand the world and appreciate its beauty. For writers and graphic designers, colours play a key role in how we get a message across with pizzazz. In honour of Earth Month, we’ll take a look at the colour Green.

I’ll bet you could easily name a dozen versions of green just off the top of your head – lime green, mint green, grass green, jade green, olive, emerald… A simple walk through a spring garden, such as the one I did the other day, will yield myriad shades of green:

The classic green of boxwood hedges
Striped green crocus leaves
Jade green sedum
Glossy green leaves contrasting with fairy-pale green inside a hellebore blossom

Green is a complex colour, created by combining the two primary colours of blue and yellow. It has many shades and connotations.

When I think of the colour, it immediately makes me think of nature, freshness, renewal.

“When the green woods laugh with the voice of joy, And the dimpling stream runs laughing by; When the air does laugh with our merry wit, And the green hill laughs with the noise of it.” William Blake

Interestingly, though, there are negative associations with green as well: greed, envy, poison. For someone with allergies, the greens of springtime might conjure up visions of hay fever. It’s all in your perspective.

O, beware, my lord, of jealousy; It is the green-ey’d monster, which doth mock The meat it feeds on.” William Shakespeare

A few shades of green have been so iconic that they’re become famous and instantly recognizable. One of the earliest of these was Nile Green, also sometimes used interchangeably with Eau de Nil. I can tell you categorically that the waters of the Nile are not green (though perhaps they once were, when the Pyramids were young), and the origins of the nomenclature are murky. The best that I’ve been able to unearth is that somewhere in the haze of Egyptomania that gripped the fashionable world after Howard Carter’s discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922, a light-to-medium green with perhaps a slight bluish undertone came to represent the exoticism of the Orient, and in particular Egypt.

A stunning pendant made around 1900 by a renowned French jeweller, George Fouquet, in collaboration with Alfonse Mucha, the Czech artist who captured Art Nouveau style, and now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, epitomizes the colour and the Egyptomania style.

Screenshot of the pendant on the Metropolitan Museum website, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/493766

The Benjamin Moore paint company quite aptly describes Nile Green as: “Classic and subtly shaded, this green conveys mystery and Old World elegance. “ If I was writing a scene set in the 1920s or 30s, I’d likely include the colour to evoke the flavour of the era, and perhaps even add a tone of mystery, in the same way that red is often used to bring out a sense of horror or dread.

Another shade of green that will be instantly recognizable to a lot of people is Harrod’s green.

My souvenir Harrods mug

The olive-toned green, always paired with elegant gold lettering, has an air of poshness that few other brands in the world have managed to represent so thoroughly. Created by Minale Tattersfield Design Group in 1967 as a way to unify the department store’s disparate packaging in its 300-plus departments, the signature look has taken on a life of its own, as all good branding does. Harrods, like any business I’ve ever come across, is extremely protective of their brand, and will sue any other brand that even approximates the Harrods lettering font.

Producing green tints for artists’ paints has been challenging throughout history. The first pigments, used in cave art 30,000 to 40,000 years ago, were made from a combination of chalk, burnt charcoal, soil and animal fat, and the colour palette was limited to red, yellow, brown, white and black. As painting progresses, there was an ongoing effort to produce more colours, and to improve the stability of the paints.

Artists and dyers began to experiment with extracting colour from natural materials, like flowers. You might think that it would have been easy to achieve a nice green, since it’s all around us in nature, but that wasn’t the case. If you look at the photo below, which I took at the Awanacancha Textile Centre in Peru, which is a cooperative of families dedicated to preserving the traditional methods of dying and weaving, the only green colour you’ll see is a rather drab sage.

A vibrant green, like the almost fluorescent shade on this lizard in the Amazon jungle, was much harder to create.

Amazon Racerunner Lizard, Peru

Blue, a colour that rarely appears in plants, was much easier, although very expensive – it was made from the semiprecious stone lapis lazuli, which for a long time could only be mined in a single mountain range in Afghanistan. Also called ultramarine blue, it’s the colour that we all associate with the robes of the Virgin Mary in medieval art.

Red came from red ochre, plentiful in iron-rich soil, and is still in use today. Black was originally called ‘bone black’, as its source was indeed charred bones.

Yellow was another challenging colour, for which the artists who loved it went to strange lengths to achieve. J. M. W. Turner, famous for his dreamy 18th century landscapes, used a watercolour paint called Indian Yellow, which apparently was sourced from the urine produced by cows who were fed only mango leaves. (It was soon banned as animal cruelty; the cows became badly malnourished on their forced diet.) Vincent Van Gogh was arguably the most famous painter using yellow, and he used a synthetic compound called Chrome Yellow, which contained lead and was known to cause delirium.

In ancient times, the colour green was made using malachite, a vibrant green mineral of various shades. Verdigris, the greenish coating that develops on weathered copper and bronze, was used by the Greeks, and was also subsequently created artificially by exposing copper plates or strips to acetic acid (such as that found in vinegar).

In 1775, the Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele invented a bright green pigment named after him. It became enormously popular, but the arsenic used to make it ended up poisoning both artists and customers. Napoleon Bonaparte’s bedroom in his home on the island of St. Helena, where he spent many years in exile, contained Scheele’s Green, and historians believe that’s what caused his death. It was replaced by Paris Green in the late 19th century, which was more durable but still contained arsenic, and was sometimes used as an insecticide. It may have caused Claude Monet’s later blindness, perhaps the ultimate nemesis for someone who dedicated his life to capturing the world around him in his art.

Classic shades of green, with their colour values in the Red-Blue-Green (RBG) scale

I have bedimmed

The noontide sun, called forth the mutinous winds,

And ‘twixt the green sea and the azured vault

Set roaring war-to the dread rattling thunder

(Shakespeare, The Tempest)

For writers, a well-chosen word or turn of phrase can magically create an image in a reader’s mind. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but we can’t use that many to create our mental pictures or we risk losing our readers in a mire of details.

So when I’m looking at scenes that I might use in my books, I’m also thinking about whether I could describe the scene well enough that my readers can envision what I’m writing about. I’ve actually discarded ideas because I felt I couldn’t capture them adequately in words, whether the details weren’t vivid enough, or too fleeting, or I’d just need too many words to describe it.

In honour of Earth Month, and the many beauties of our world that have enriched stories for eons, here are some of my favourite scenes of green from my travels. Pick your favourite and let me know how you’d recreate it with words!

Green waters of the Zambezi River tumbling over Victoria Falls
Layers and layers of green in the Amazon jungle canopy
The pastoral green of Ireland in the autumn
A lazy hippo among water hyacinth in Lake Naivasha, Kenya
Some of the most vivid greens I’ve ever seen on an oxbow lake in the Amazon jungle
Blue-green peaks of the Andes surrounding Machu Picchu, Peru

All photos by me unless otherwise specified, and all rights reserved. E. Jurus

References

  1. Sagar-Fenton, Beth & McNeill, Lizzy (2018). “How many words do you need to speak a language?” BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-44569277