World building is a favorite topic for writers and readers of fantasy and science fiction. Creating new languages, devising a history, making up social structures, figuring out the physical realities of a non-existent place… It’s all great fun, and when it’s done right, you end up with Oz, Luna Colony, Middle Earth, the Star Trek universe, or Hogwarts.
But world-building is not the sole property of science fiction and fantasy writers. I know I do a fair amount of world building in my mysteries, and I bet the Wicked Cozy authors would say the same. In fact, world building has been part of mysteries since Arthur Conan Doyle move Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson into a mythical Baker Street address.
Take my Laura Fleming mysteries. (That was my first series, written back when I was still Toni L.P Kelner, and recently re-released as Audible downloads and ebooks. Was that too obvious a plug?) They were set in Byerly NC, a small Southern mill town based on the real North Carolina mill towns surrounding Hickory, especially Granite Falls.
The thing is, no matter how much research I did to make it realistic, Byerly isn’t real. There’s no Walters Mill bustling with workers making socks, no La Dauphin Beauty Parlor to get your hair fixed, no Pigwick’s Barbecue. (To be honest, it’s the barbecue place I really wish were around.) So don’t you think I ought to get credit for world building?
Then there’s my new Family Skeleton series. (Yeah, I know. Another plug. Sorry.) Obviously, I had to create a world where an ambulatory skeleton named Sid could exist, solve his own murder, and make bad jokes. (The bad jokes part came all too easily for me.) I also had to create Pennycross, MA, the town where all this takes place. And the college where protagonist Georgia Thackery works, plus the location where Sid was murdered. All were based on places I’ve been or seen, but none of them are real.
True, I don’t have to create a new language, other than the slang of teenagers, which may have mutated a dozen times by the time a book is published. But when it’s called for, I do have to give the fictional towns histories. Especially long-past murders–those are almost always called for.
Not only do we mystery writers have world building to tend to, but we have an extra challenge. You see, while readers are pretty forgiving of oddities in fantastical worlds — the Enterprise missing bathrooms, Hogwarts students who never study English or math — the scrutiny is a bit tougher when you build a world that’s a little closer to home. I once got into trouble for having a beauty parlor open on Monday, and was told in no uncertain terms that that never happens. (Was that beauty salon in the Emerald City closed on Sunday?)
So if you’re talking world-building, don’t assume mystery writers have it easy. We really don’t.
But if you’ll allow me to be serious for just a minute, here’s the most meaningful piece of world building for me. Whether I’m writing about a Southern mill town where people drop like flies or an ambulatory skeleton solving his own murder, I create worlds where death makes sense.
Sadly, in the real world death often doesn’t make sense, at least not to my limited perception. Random violence is frighteningly common. Terrorists blow up people without warning, serial killers pick their victims by their hair color, people who eat right and exercise die of heart attacks, planes crash. People die every day from being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
But in my worlds, no death is random. There may be hidden motives, long-buried secrets, hatred simmering under the surface–all leading to murder–but they’re understandable murders. The killers are always found, and everything is explained. A world where such things make sense is probably the least realistic fantasy world of all, but I’m happy to spend my days there.
Leigh Perry is the author of the aforementioned (and relentlessly plugged) Family Skeleton mystery series. A Skeleton in the Family, the first, was released in September and The Skeleton Takes a Bow is scheduled for September 2014. As Toni L.P. Kelner, she’s the author of the Laura Fleming series (also relentlessly plugged) and the Where are They Now? series (see, she didn’t plug everything–until now). She also co-edits anthologies with Charlaine Harris. Games Creatures Play, their sixth, will be released in April. You can visit Leigh at www.leighperryauthor.com or Toni at www.tonilpkelner.com. Both versions are also active on Facebook, where they often squabble.
Readers: What is the hardest part of world building?