Our guest today is Gaëtane Burkolter: born in Africa, she spent her early childhood in Switzerland and grew up in Australia. Gaëtane has a Bachelor of Arts (Communications) from the University of Technology, Sydney, and almost twenty years in government communications and public relations. Becoming a parent relatively late in life rocked Gaëtane’s world, opening the floodgates to long-suppressed creativity. She is now a multi-passionate artist pursing writing, photography, and painting. As an introvert and low-techer, she is undecided about whether she has what it takes to make it in the rough and tumble of the publishing world, but she has “sneakily completed” the first draft of a sci-fi novel anyway.
I’m at the end of a four-year term in Italy as a trailing spouse, which has given me plenty of time to savour once again the experience of being an incomer, someone who isn’t the same and doesn’t belong. As a long time sci-fi and fantasy reader, world-building has always fascinated me. I found an enormous number of parallels to that writer’s challenge as I navigated the chaotic streets of Rome, the ancient culture of its people, and the loss of my own place in the world.
Find Gaëtane on Instagram @cajetanedesign, and connect with her through comments to this post—but please note she will be responding from her home in Italy and because of the time difference from the U.S., there may be a delay in her replies.
Culture Shock: A Window To Worldbuilding
In 2012 my family moved from Canberra, Australia, to Rome. The culture shock was enormous. As I observed myself struggling first to blend and then to belong, it struck me that as a writer this was excellent training for world building. Being immersed in a foreign environment and attempting to make it one’s own is akin to placing a reader comfortably in a story.
The Five Senses
My first impressions of Rome were overwhelmingly sensate. Swamping summer heat, clinging like a wet shirt. Umbrella pines, their twisted, sculptural forms silhouetted against the city skyline. Choking clouds of cigarette smoke everywhere, so different to Canberra’s legislated, smoke-free zones.
Sensate cues act like a grappling hook on your readers, pulling them into the scene. Know the environment you’re writing about and fill your readers’ senses with it. Start by by making sure your character is responding to sensate triggers. Make them wrinkle their nose at dog droppings thick on the footpaths, stinking in the heat. Make them wince at the never ending howl of sirens and horns in Rome’s traffic. Let them be intrigued or comforted by the food on offer – artichokes instead of avocadoes, apples instead of mangoes, pork instead of lamb. Keep your character’s responses, well, in character, according to how well they know their surrounds.
Capturing the unique rhythms of a place, from the mundane to the macro, from the slow-turning wheel of the seasons to pensioner discount day at the supermarket, creates authenticity. I liken these rhythms to a heartbeat that speeds up or slows down according to the level of excitement. It’s a background beat, but it gives your world definition and helps your readers tune in.
I love Rome most in winter. The days are shorter, moodier, the rains sweeping in like a dark cloak. [Read more…]