Visualizing a world view

One of the more frustrating things for a writer is building the fictional world within which their characters will take life and form.  If it’s not done properly, it’ll show in the shallowness of the background against which the plot plays out.  What’s more, it’ll frustrate readers, who are trying to form their own visualization of what’s happening, where, and to whom, only to find that the details they need as “foundation stones” for their imagination simply aren’t there.

I’ve found a very useful tool is to look online for articles, photo essays, etc. that depict something similar to what I’m trying to portray in my work in progress.  As an example, the New York Times has published many photo-heavy articles under the umbrella title of “The World through a Lens“.  Some examples include:

Surviving in Isolation, Where the Steppe Has Turned to Sand

A Cyclist On The English Landscape

The Making Of A ‘European Yellowstone’

Glimpses of an Ancient Fire-Walking Ritual in Northern Greece

In Indonesia, a Blurred Boundary Between the Living and the Dead

Vivid Street Scenes From Salvador, Brazil

There are many more at the link.

There are plenty of other sites that offer similar food for thought:  Smithsonian Magazine, National Geographic, Space, the Discovery Channel, etc.  I find that, whether reading or writing, it repays clicking over to one of them for a while every now and again, and exposing myself (you should pardon the expression) to completely different cultures and milieux to those with which I’m familiar.  It stretches my imagination, and keeps me fresh.  I can approach other authors’ work with greater breadth of vision and insight, and I can write my own books with the same benefits.

What say you, readers?

7 comments

  1. > trying to form their own visualization of what’s happening,

    That’s a particular gripe of mine. Jim Butcher’s Dresen series is a good example. He just drops you in with no backstory, no explanations, so I had to make up my own. Well, basically I just swiped the backstory from Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series and applied it to Dresden. I’m pretty sure that’s what Butcher did, later, to paper over all the holes.

    That’s bad… but what’s even worse is when the author doesn’t bother to tell me important details, then just springs them out of nowhere near the end, more or less a deux ex machina as he realizes he’s written himself into a hole. That makes me… angry.

    If I wanted to make up my own stories, I’d write my own damned book. No, you can’t spoon-feed the reader every little detail, but past some point, you’ve failed to make something that’s coherent, much less entertaining.

    1. The thing that bugs me of about the first two Dresden books, is that the character was holding the idiot ball.
      He has a defining superpower.
      Using that superpower in the first chapter of either book would have instantly solved the mystery before the threat before catastrophic.
      In both cases, good reasons to use his superpower were present.
      In both cases, the character’s internal monologue noted and commented on those reasons.
      He just didn’t.
      There is no rationalization for it.
      He just didn’t.
      And then didn’t learn from the mistake.
      He didn’t even hang a lampshade.
      He just completely ignored that an elephant was doing jumping jacks in his apartment.

      (I hear that there were later rationalizations. But my willing suspension of disbelief is shattered for that series. I liked the characters, the writing, and the world, but I can’t look at them without immediately dissecting the story and looking for tor holes.)

  2. I’ve picked up a collection of coffee-table books of Western art and photographic landscapes that I have used to great effect for my own created “worlds”. I am one of those who needs a visualization of a space before I can write about it. I used to have a hobby of building one-twelfth scale miniatures, both structures and single room shadow-boxes. Creating a “world” to write about is very much like constructing one of those miniatures.

  3. Yep. If you’ve got the picture in your head, it’ll show up on paper/screen.

    Google Earth is great for finding pictures of places “sort of like” or “Their ancestors came from here, what sort of architecture is common . . .” “I need a valley about this long, this climate zone, with a lake.” Or my most recent . . . Major Ice age, very low sea levels, “what does the Mediterranean valley look like?”

    1. Oh my, yes – Google Earth is a fantastic tool. I used the street view version to work out what passengers would have seen in passing from a carriage in a ride between Waterloo Station to Belgrave Square c. 1875 for one of my books. And I used it again for another, in picking out a site for a WWII transport crash-landing in Albania, and a village nearby for the survivors to be sheltered in. I could “tour” the whole village that I picked out by that means.

    2. I love Street View. I used it to great effect scoping out locations in Amsterdam and Arizona, right down to the exact cafe the conversation with the werewolf took place in.

      Or the house the spies took over across the onion field from the self-storage place in a little town in Arizona. Where the ogre corpse was stored for 20 years.

      Amazing the stuff you can make up about a plain old storage joint. ~:D

  4. Long walks help with scenery, though vacations may be needed to multiply the possbilities.

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