A couple of weeks ago, I was in an extraordinary place: Rotorua in New Zealand, where bubbling mud pools, shooting geysers and steam-wreathed villages create an amazing otherworldly atmosphere, complete with sound effects (gurgle, hiss, splash) and smell (rotten eggs, burnt toast). It’s a place full of stories, of course: Maori legends, tales of historical tragedies, love stories and scary stories…A place to fire the imagination! And one which could be a living example of the idea that setting does not have to be just a backdrop to story, but almost a character in itself.
It’s easy to see that in Rotorua, where the bubbling mud seems ready at any moment to spew out a strange creature, the very hot springs sometimes called murder ripples have a weirdly placid beauty under their clouds of steam, and the fires of the earth’s center are much closer to the surface than is truly comfortable to think about for too long. Here, a writer can–and in my case, does–file away verbal and written impressions as well as photos and videos to help in the creation of a fictional setting that won’t be actually Rotorua, but will be greatly inspired by it. And like the real place, it will be more than just a backdrop.
That kind of real-world setting, which in its extraordinary distinctiveness can seem almost fictional (as, in a contrasting but complementary example, a city like Venice, which I’ve also used in my fiction, does as well) might seem like an easy way into creation of a fictional world. After all, how hard can it be to take elements like boiling mud and clouds of steam and sleeping volcanoes—or gondolas and bridges and golden-domed palaces–and fictionalize them? Don’t all you need to do is simply faithfully transcribe what your senses tell you?
Newsflash: What must be believed in real life because you see it (and smell it!) in front of your nose is not so obvious when you’re dealing with fiction. You have to work at it to make your reader believe, even when you’re departing from a real-world setting as atmospheric as Rotorua or Venice, and even–or perhaps especially–when you are creating fantasy fiction. So how do you do it? What do you leave in, and what do you leave out?
Here’s my advice, based on some of the things I’ve learned over the years: [Read more…]