A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
Worldbuilding is usually talked about in terms of science or speculative fiction, but I think it’s just as important a component in a contemporary realistic story.
My first novel, Infinite Sky, is a realistic contemporary story about thirteen-year-old Iris Dancy, who lives with her dad and her older brother in a ramshackle old farmhouse, Silverweed Farm. Her mum has left the family to go on a soul-searching expedition around North Africa, and the family, and Silverweed, have since fallen into a slightly chaotic state. Cue a family of Irish Travellers setting up camp in the Dancy’s disused paddock, and an adventure beginning that will change Iris’s and her family’s lives forever.
Whatever the genre, world building is key, and if your story is going to live on in people’s heads, you have to get the details of your imaginary world right. For Infinite Sky, we decided to make it timeless, and so all references to popular culture, party politics, world events and technology were removed.
There are a few different settings in the novel: the various rooms of Silverweed Farm itself, which is rickety and patched together and not entirely clean; the corn den, where Iris meets and falls in love with Trick, the young Traveller boy; the paddock, where Trick and his family live in caravans; and Iris’s best friend Matty’s tiny but pristine house. The whole story unfolds in a small village on the outskirts of the Peak District in Derbyshire (near where I grew up), an area famous for its rugged beauty and hills.
I used my dad’s house, and the land around it as the template for the sets in Infinite Sky, and so worldbuilding for me was easy in some ways. Still, I used this template of my childhood home to create a version of these places that doesn’t exist. I allowed my childhood perception of my dad’s house to mix with with imagined details to achieve an effect, to create a place all its own.
Most of the settings in the book were written from memory. I trawled through childhood adventures in the fields surrounding the house, and run ins with the local tough guys, and my relationships with my parents and brother and friends, and I got a first draft of the novel. Then, due to changed circumstances, I moved back to my dad’s house for a period. This was purely coincidental, but it was invaluable for the book. For weeks, I wandered the fields, and played with the dog, and remembered how it felt to run wild in this beloved place. I added in details and feelings and senses to the manuscript. I considered scenes from Iris’s perspective in the places that inspired them, and improved the sentences in the book.
Finishing the book in the place that inspired it was a very special thing, and I don’t expect to have the experience again. In the finished draft, I have shrunk my home town to a village, moved it closer to the countryside, and demolished the extra houses that have sprung up in recent years. I have rearranged the landscape, changed crops (corn never grew in the fields by us, alas), and inserted boats, swans and azure damselfies. And with all of these small decisions about what to include or omit or exaggerate, I built Iris’s and Trick’s world.
Do you agree that worldbuilding is as important an element in realistic fiction as science fiction? Or do you think I’m talking nonsense? What other contemporary novels have excellent worldbuilding in them? I would love to hear from you.