Know your world

You might think that I'm off on the wrong track already - that maybe this first rule is sensible for people who are working on historical novels or science fiction or round-the-world thrillers, but that it doesn't apply to you. After all, you're planning on writing a novel set in the town in which you currently live, using thinly disguised versions of your friends and relatives as the characters, so you don't need to research your background.

In your town, which streets intersect lanes; in which direction do the house numbers run; what kind of tree is that monstrous thing that grows in the library's side yard; what are the five most common varieties of birds you'll find around the bird feeder in January, or the birdbath in July? What is the family name on that elaborate tombstone that you notice every time you drive to the grocery store? What color are the handles on the carts in your grocery store, and if there's lettering on them, what does it say? Are the parking spaces straight in or diagonal? Which families started the town, and are they still in control of the place? What material has been used to pave the streets? How old is the oldest house and where is it? Who built the projects over on the east side?

I could ask a million questions like those - they're the sort of questions I always ask myself about any new world I'm creating. They are small, personal questions, which when answered offer intimate knowledge of a place. That intimate knowledge is what will make your book come to life -tiny, perfect details, mentioned so casually that you might not even realize you have included them.

To get these details you have to look around your world with the eyes of a stranger before you begin to write. You must become an innocent, asking silly questions and being willing to make a fool of yourself. And this is true whether you're using your home town or creating a complete world from scratch on the fourth planet out from an alien sun. You have to name the flowers and the trees and the grass, the streets and the houses and the stars, the animals and the rivers and the clouds - even if you don't intend to use these names, or this knowledge. Even if you don't think you'll need it.

The act of learning these details will make them part of your thoughts, and your mind will know they exist even if you don't put them on the page. And as a result, the book you write will live within a whole world, and not in a Hollywood set, where if you walked out in the front door of that beautiful house, nothing would greet you but the parking lot behind the propped-up set.

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