I recall being asked about my enthusiasm for Patrick O’Brian’s 20-novel series about British sea captain Jack Aubrey and his eccentric friend Stephen Maturin as they navigated the Napoleonic Wars. Why would I keep returning to these books, beginning with Master and Commander (in 2003 a movie starring Russell Crowe)? I’d answer, “What’s amazing about these books is that you enter such a complete world!”
This memory has come back recently as I’ve traveled through new reading experiences: sampling indie authors, returning to old favorites, and meeting new traditionally published and often best-selling authors. Like all readers, I’ve found books that work for me and books that don’t. A writer myself, I’m always interested in what makes a book spring into gear or stall out, even if only for me, since I want to sort out strong and weak strategies in my own work.
I know that “voice” can override glitches that try to pull me out of the story. I’ve enjoyed books with plot flaws because I enjoyed hearing the writer talking to me through characters, description, and style.
But there’s another important quality akin to voice: the writer’s ability to build a world.
In fact, I’ll take a big chance here: the ability to build a complete, believable world may make a difference if being traditionally published is ever a goal.
What builds such a world?
The quality that makes a book impossible to put down is our total immersion in its reality. That metaphor implies that when we enter a book’s world, we lose sight of our familiar world in which we have to clean house and go to work and wash the car. For that to happen, this new world must be divorced from the mundane. It has to provide us with a set of eyes that see differently, that notice things we would not have noticed until the author seized our gaze.
Writers of historical fiction may find monopolizing our imaginations easier to achieve; even touches of daily life illuminate corners of a universe that takes us out of our own. For example, in Sarah Waters’s The Paying Guests, there’s the sound of shillings clunking into the gas meter, there’s the slog across the yard to the outdoor WC. But modern stories should also be flush with such mind-capturing details. In Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie takes me into a Trenton, New Jersey, hair-braiding salon, an atmosphere completely alien to me but starkly evocative in the world she invites me into. I had never seen this corner of a modern city. I walked with her, across the divide between our worlds.
But the trust that sustains that journey is fragile. It can be shaken in many ways. Somehow, above all, a creator of worlds must convince us that her world really could exist, really does exist, even if only in mind.
A sense of accuracy is essential. Creators of worlds in sci-fi and fantasy have more leeway than authors in other genres; details need mostly to be consistent. True, in historical novels we are at the mercy of an author’s research. Patrick O’Brian never sailed on one of the ships he wrote about; how can we trust his depictions of 1800s British naval life?
He seduces with details: How the ship’s company had to tap their biscuits to knock the weevils out before eating; how the men at the cannons had to arch their bodies to avoid being killed by the guns’ recoil. If he knows these things, surely he knows the rest. Again, we’re sucked out of our daily worlds into his by the precision and clarity of what he puts before us. We’re too busy absorbing all the surprising pieces of his universe to look away.
Accuracy is especially vital if you’re writing for a specific community that knows its own contours well. I felt kicked out of a horse book when, among other glitches, the writer had a teenage girl galloping up on one of her farm’s “yearling thoroughbreds.” Now, they do back late yearlings on Thoroughbred farms, since the young horses will all officially turn two on January 1, and these babies often run their first races before they actually turn two. But if this is a real farm, training real racehorses, no teenage girl will be galloping around pastures on a newly broken baby destined for the track. When just a few pages later, a character attached crossties to a bridle. . . !
But this need for convincing accuracy lies at the heart of the world-builder’s dilemma. Immersion depends on strangeness. The details that capture me cannot be details I could have supplied myself. Want me to stick with you on a spring morning in the countryside? Don’t tell me about the bright blue sky or the fluffy clouds or the green fields. I know about those without your help. No, tell me something I wouldn’t have noticed or cared about until you opened my eyes.
Yet if we are to believe, we must be able to connect these new worlds to landscapes where our usual compasses will work. The minute a reader says, “Oh, that would never happen!” or “People wouldn’t act that way!” or “I know that’s not true!”, the trust is gone.
So world-builders must construct double journeys: along a mysterious new road that keeps us gasping, yet one that parallels the world we do know. For example, Bev Pettersen’s Backstretch Baby showed me specifics of racetrack life I hadn’t witnessed myself, but the details that did match what I’d seen for myself prepared me for what she wanted me to accept. I felt I’d entered her version of a world I’d been in before, a version that was going to show me something I’d never have guessed.
In dialogue, this essential double journey shows clear.
Dialogue must be accurate to its time and place. Our characters need to “talk like real people.”
And yet nothing can be deadlier to our immersion in a story’s world than characters who talk like real people. All the little “hellos,” “how are yous,” “fine, thank yous,” with which we coat our exchanges have to be mercilessly expunged. Dialogue has to sound “natural” to the worlds we know while obsessively, ferociously, devoting itself to building the one we don’t.
Rereading National Velvet recently showed me how dialogue contributed to the world of this stunningly realized plot. Here’s Mi Taylor (the Mickey Rooney character in the movie) to Velvet early on—he’s just given her money to put down on the raffle ticket for the Piebald:
“. . . And see this, Velvet, I’m a fool to do it. That piebald’s as big a perisher’s the fellow that tipped me the five. ‘M going up to look at him this afternoon and likely I’ll be sorry when I see his murdering white eye.”
“Can we come too, can we come too?”
“You got yer muslins to iron.”
“MUSLINS!” said Velvet, outraged.
“Yer ma’s just wrung ’em out of the suds. I seen ’em. For the Fair.”
“I’m not going to wear MUSLIN,” said Velvet with a voice of iron.
“You’ll wear what yer told,” said Mi placidly. “I’ll slip up after dinner. Nearer one. I got them sheep at twelve. . . .”
If you’ve read the book, you know that its world forms around families and dreams and how they play out or fail in the environment of a small English village in the 1930s. The detail of what the Brown girls will wear to the fair and the distinct voice in which Mi delivers that detail become, in this dialogue, a demonstration of how authority functions in this world, warning of the challenge to that authority from the magical horse with the “murdering white eye.”
World-building is a little like trying to catch skittish mice. We want to entice readers along the paths we’ve laid with tiny bits of carefully laid-out cheese. If the cheese is stale, they’ll turn up their noses. If the tidbits are too far apart, asking for too much empty wandering between offerings, they’ll venture off the path. If the cheese isn’t recognizable as cheese, if it’s too alien, they’ll be too wary to bite.
When I read your book, I want to follow that path without looking back or aside. I want to be captured. I want to find myself helplessly enclosed in your world. You have a double journey to accomplish; I want you to keep me pressing toward the vista straight ahead.
WHAT MAKES A WORLD COME ALIVE FOR YOU?