Today I’m very pleased to share with you an Embracing My Inner Geek guest post written by the amazing Sarah Benwell. I first met Sarah through Twitter but it just so happens that she lives very close to me and we met through a library event. She’s seriously one of the loveliest people I’ve ever met so I’d love you all to give her a warm welcome. Sarah is a writer and I just know that we’ll be seeing her books in bookshops soon.
This post isn’t so much about my inner geek as my very loud, outspoken outer geek. I’m a writer. I love words and stories and books. I write YA, and have a particular fondness for foreign places. No, foreign lives. I like to travel, both in real life and in fiction. I like to wander through spice markets and temples and deserts, to get up at dawn and work alongside strangers until long after the stars appear, to taste new languages upon my tongue, scale trees and mountains, and feel the sun and rain and sand and mud against my skin. To share a meal or a roof with school kids or soldiers or cannibals. I love people. I love the way we’re all so different and yet inherently the same. I love our stories, and relationships, and the way we make our way across the world.
And because that’s what I love, I want to share the whole entire world with everyone. All of it. Every place, every story, every detail. I want readers to be able to walk hand in hand with characters who are no longer strangers, and to feel it, just like I do. But it’s not as easy as it sounds.
This is where my biggest geek-facet sits proudly on display. World building. And this applies to any setting – your hometown, the Malaysian jungle or a futuristic distant planet. World building matters. So much of who we are and what we do is shaped by our surroundings, and if I can’t feel out the edges of the world you create, if I don’t know the rules, I’m lost. And if I’m lost, I end up trying to work all that stuff out instead of living inside your story. This bugs me. More than bugs me. It ruins otherwise-awesome books completely, because I’m thinking way too hard to emmerse myself. I’m doubting you.
So. How to make me the happiest reader? Get your world right. Easy, yes?
No? Ok. So how about we take this one step at a time…
If you’re going to write about a place/ culture, you need to know it. If you can’t get to a place, you at least need to research. Properly. In fact, even if you have been somewhere, there’s no way you can know every cultural reference or nuance, or see every landmark, taste every dish, or encounter every point of view. So you still need to do your research.
Learn everything you can. Scour travel guides and search through Trek-Earth photos. Find out about the major religions, exports, common pastimes, education systems. Listen to the music from your setting, and the language – let the speech patterns sink into your brain, learn some of the language if you can. Seek out slang and idioms. Read literature, watch movies. Visit someplace similar; if you can’t get to the desert, at least go to the beach on a windy day and feel the sand whip against your skin.
And if your setting isn’t real, think about this stuff, in your head. Make it up, yes, but do so thoroughly, please. Imagine that I’m sitting there behind you with a host of questions: what’s the national dish, or deities? Are the seasons like ours? Who sits at the head of your world, making the decisions? And you still need research, even then. If your MC is a swordsman, you need to know the basic rules of combat. If she hunts or scavenges, you should probably learn about traps and safe berries and how to skin a rabbit. You might need to learn about engines and the science of space travel, or political systems and diplomatic tactics, or what diseases can wipe out an entire nation within weeks. Whatever.
You absolutely cannot do too much of this, I promise. Know. Your. World.
Fast forward, let’s say you’ve got this covered. You know all there is to know about rice farming or Hinduism or how to take care of a sword. How do you get all that into your stories without sounding like a dusty old professor?
Firstly, you don’t need to put everything you know into your text. Please. Please don’t put everything in. The characters and story still come first, you just want your awesome new-found knowledge to inform these things.
Set out the rules; show us the edges of the map, but subtly. I want this stuff, but I don’t want twenty pages at the start of your story (even one, if I’m honest) explaining everything. Feed us little bits, as and when they’re relevant, or even better, as your characters encounter them. And then, show us how things affect your characters, how they go about their lives; if your MC worships the Great And Mighty Caffeinator, show us what this looks like, be it meditating over a cup of coffee every morning, or leaving coffee grinds and biscuits at her local temple. If he works in a gold-mine, and the selling price has plummeted, show us what this means. I promise once you start, you’ll wonder why you ever needed that prologue.
Finally, once your rules are set out, what I really, really want, is details. Good, specific details. If I’m going to walk down that street beside your characters I need to know where I am. I need to see the way the sunlight bounces off of the fish in that pond, feel the rain on my skin, smell the ginger in those noodles before you let me take a bite, and hear the footsteps softly creeping up behind us. The senses are your friend. Use them.
Let me into your world. Because I really, truly want to love it.