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World Building Series: Writing Real-World Settings

Updated: Aug 31, 2022

No matter if you are writing a historical fiction novel, a "what-if" novel, or a real-world novel, all of these stories have one thing in common. They are set in places that already exist. When it comes to world-building, it seems like it should be easier to create a real-world story than a fantasy story. You don't have to create where the characters live, figure out the map of their world, or create a new language that is specific to your story.

However, the idea that world-building in the real-world is any easier than in a fantasy world is misconstrued. In fantasy stories, no one can truly fact check you. They can see inconsistencies or holes within your world but there isn’t as much pressure to be “correct”. In a real-world story, readers can, and will, fact check your accuracy!

It is quite possible your readers live near the place you set your story. They could be a part of the culture you have decided to write about, or even know the language you decided to incorporate. If you neglect to research and make errors in your worldbuilding, it can make you seem less credible as a writer and makes your story less believable overall. Researching is one of the most important parts of writing, often overlooked for more fun elements such as character development, imagery, or dialogue. Although these all matter when creating a great story, none can come before you create the world your characters live in.

Let's create a hypothetical scene together. Say we want to write a story about an up-and-coming author, living paycheck to paycheck in the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan. This is the topic we will build on.

Now we need to figure out what this world looks like for this character. Do they live in a house or apartment? Do they have roommates? What is their day job? Do they speak English? Are they an immigrant? What neighborhood do they live in? Do they struggle with any mental illness? The questions can keep going. Your goal here is to figure out where your character fits into their world and how they interact with others who inhabit it.

Some questions are easier to answer than others. Let’s look at a question from the previous paragraph. Does your character speak English? You can simply answer yes or no. If you answer no, you have to figure out what language they speak. If you don't know the language very well, you will have to start learning it in order to make your world more realistic. Otherwise, you run the risk of a reader calling you out on your mistake!

Doing your research and really knowing the world you’re writing about will help your story go from 2-dimensional to 3-dimensional. Developing the layers of your world helps create the depth you need to allow the reader to experience the story along with your character. When researching, it is important to look for the places your character might hang out on their days off work and what places they may avoid.

Sometimes, research can happen on a much smaller scale. For example, imagine your character likes to go to Panera on their days off and write while they eat their lunch. If you wanted to know what it was like to try and work in that environment, you can visit your own local Panera and observe how people work there. Are there a lot of customers also working? Is there music playing in the background? Are people constantly coming up to your table and bothering you as you try to write? Once again, these are details that will help your reader experience the story along with your character!

Although traveling to the destination would be the ultimate form of research, for most people that is not a viable option. It can become quite costly very rapidly. Contrary to popular opinion, researching does not have to be expensive to be thorough. For some, it may even bring their story to a standstill if they do not consider other research options. However, with how much information is harbored on the internet, most research can be conducted without ever seeing the location in person. Whether you Google your location, such as "Detroit, Michigan" or look up YouTube videos that show different parts of the city, getting these glimpses of your desired setting will help you understand your world more. It will also show the readers you are competent and well-versed in every part of your story.

World-building is not easy. “Real-world" stories can be intimidating, especially knowing there are people who will fact check you! However, with the proper research and time dedicated to figuring out your world, you can create a place the readers experience instead of read about! Trust your instincts! Do your research! And create a world filled with experiences your characters deserve!


About the author: Aly Rosema is a college student currently working towards her BS in Writing. When she isn't doing homework or writing short stories, she likes to bake and have dance parties with her little sister. You can find Aly on Twitter @RosemaAlyson.


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