When people talk about worldbuilding in fiction, I usually think fantasy or science fiction or maybe a different time period, but, really, it applies to all fiction.
So far, my novels have all been set in Minnesota (where I live) or on the St. Croix River, which divides Minnesota and Wisconsin (where my in-laws have a summer house). Places I know. Streets I know. In the case of two of my novels, a summer house I know quite well.
So where’s the worldbuilding?
My Bennet Sisters YA series is set in Woodbury, Minnesota, because I wanted a city in Minnesota that sounds like Jane Austen. Highbury is Emma and not Pride and Prejudice, but close enough. I’m not often in Woodbury, but it’s right off Highway 94, which I’ve driven a million times between Minneapolis and Wisconsin, it’s close to my in-laws’ summer house, and the Valley Creek Mall has a couple of good bookstores. Oh, and there’s a Five Guys nearby. (Research trip!) Thanks to my books, Valley Creek Mall also now has an imaginary pizza joint: Russo’s. Why? Whenever Bad Stuff (loosely defined) happens in my books, I make up a place rather than annoy a real place. That’s probably why hospitals in fiction tend to be invented by the author.
Even in my fictional worlds, though, I try to keep it as real as possible. Readers (including me) want to feel like they’ve been wherever the characters are going. That’s why my five teenage girls in the Bennet Sisters novels roam the Mall of America, not some huge fictional mall that happens to be in Bloomington, Minnesota. They hang out at the DQ in Valley Creek Mall. Jane takes a trip to New York City and goes shopping at Bloomingdale’s. When Cat goes for a joyride to Wisconsin Dells, the reader is right there as she makes a detour at Menards in Hudson, Wisconsin, and drives past Eau Claire and Black River Falls on her way to the Dells.
But sometimes I can’t keep it real.
If a YA book is set in a high school, and bad things happen in that high school, I have to make it up. My most recent YA manuscript dealt with issues like shaming and bullying. I definitely had to invent the school where that takes place. When I had that school play another Minneapolis high school in football, though, I named an actual school. The closer I stay to reality, the better.
Sometimes it’s more difficult. I’m currently working on a YA series about a high school for psychics. I had to invent a high school (of course), but I placed it close to Minnehaha Falls in Minneapolis, both for a readers’ reference point and because I love Minnehaha Falls. On occasion, the characters go on unsanctioned adventures, ending up at real places like Fort Snelling or Lake Calhoun or Sea Salt, the restaurant at Minnehaha Falls. But mostly they’re in class, and they’re divided by groups á la Harry Potter, where their personality fits the personality of the group. The worldbuilding was intense as I began writing the first book in the series. I had to figure out the groups and individual characters, both students and teachers, in a world where everyone is psychic and has different psychic skills, insecurities, and quirks. It’s not so much that I’m building a world; it’s more that I’m building the characters inside that world.
In fact, in all of my books, that’s the most important part of worldbuilding: figuring out the characters. So, really, the title of this blog should’ve instead been Character, Character, Character.
Too late now!
Mary Strand is the author of Pride, Prejudice, and Push-Up Bras and three other novels in the Bennet Sisters YA series. You can find out more about her at marystrand.com.