When Designing a Setting, Use the Kitchen Sink
As I follow in the footsteps of J.R.R. Tolkien (hands down my favorite author) I am attempting to create a completely new and unseen place set far away near Alpha Centauri. I am designing five separate solar systems, complete with atmospheres, flora, fauna, intelligent life forms, and a history that spans over 500 years.
I’ve discovered a few things over the past few months as I’ve been working on this behemoth, and I’d like to share what I’ve discovered with you folks who read this blog. I know that not all of you write in the fantasy/science-fiction genre, but I feel that these tips could work for any genre and will help the writer create more believable settings, rich in history and scope.
History – It is important to know the past history of a setting in order to better understand the character’s place in it. This can be as simple as creating a past timeline (in my case from 2014 to 4378 where my first novel takes place) or as complex as writing about each moment in history in paragraph form in order to allow your brain to work through the backstory enough so that you can start “living there”. Either way, this creates a colorful setting with past events that resonate with the present events of your story.
Culture/Religion – I spent a long time crafting the cultures that will populate my series, and this should be tied directly to the events listed in #1 of our list. Events in history, both major and minor, will dictate the development of culture and religion. For example, one alien race in my series was minding their own business building their ziggurats, when along came some alien invaders who subjugated them through force. These invading aliens enslaved their population, but because the invader’s technology was much more advanced than the subjugated species, this species began to worship the invaders as gods. Out of this came a new religion that the invaders used as a method of control. (Yeah, it all sounds like Stargate…until…) There was a massive rebellion of the other planets that the invaders conquered, and after this there were splinter religions, some of them (a small number) worshipping the invaders, others becoming complete atheists, but others still look to vanquish the “false gods” forever, hunting them wherever they can find them. The culture here is one of brutality and violence mixed with a rising undercurrent of peace.
Flora/Fauna – As a science-fiction writer, I absolutely love the fact that the internet has image search. Sure, I could dream up some fantastic creatures (and I do sometimes based on nightmares I have) but a simple search of “concept art” will dredge up thousands of artworks that can be used to inspire the science-fiction writer. The point here is that every setting will have some type of wildlife and plant life. If you write about normal places, places humans can visit, then research the place where you are setting your story. I am currently reading a novel by a former student entitled Wolves and Men (review forthcoming) set in the Oachita Mountains in Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma. Sure, Natasha Wittman grew up in Oklahoma, but she is very adept at describing the forests and wildlife (especially flowers) that are indigenous to the region. This helps me feel like I’m actually walking through those forests, and that is the point. The more researched the setting, the better.
Government – I spent a lot of time figuring out what kind of government my first alien species might have since they evolved from ants. Originally they were living in a monarchy, but because their queen betrayed them to the alien invaders, after the revolution they adopted a constitutional oligarchy with the monarchy becoming more of the role of a figurehead. I believe that the government should be based on what happens in the setting’s history. It should also be heavily influenced by the environment, the climate, and the culture or religion that dominates that history. If you are writing a story set in Italy during the time of the Medici, you should probably research the intricate relationship that the Medici had with the Roman Catholic Church and with their neighboring cities. This, as stated, will increase the richness of the setting for the reader and make them feel like they are actually experiencing realistic events, even if they are set in a far off planet or deep within the caverns of an archaeological expedition.
So as you can see, I throw in the kitchen sink when designing a setting. The setting will inform the events of my plot even if I only expose the reader to a small glimpse of the entire background. This richness helps me do two things:
A. Create a believable setting for the reader.
B. Allow me to “live” in the setting so that I can best relate the world to the reader.