“Something always sparks off a novel,” P.D. James wrote. “With me, it’s always the setting. I have a strong response to what I think of as the ‘spirit of a place’. I remember I was looking for an idea in East Anglia and standing on a very lonely stretch of beach. I shut my eyes and listened to the sound of the waves breaking over the pebble shore. Then I opened them and turned from looking at the dangerous and cold North Sea to look up and there, overshadowing this lonely stretch of beach was the great, empty, huge white outline of Sizewell nuclear power station. In that moment I knew I had a novel. It was called Devices and Desires.”
The writer’s objective, as coined by to Sol Stein, is “to provide the reader with an experience that is superior to the experiences the reader encounters in everyday life.” One of the ways we do this is by sweeping him up and immersing him in a brave, new world.
It wasn’t long ago that air travel was restricted to the jet set. In Michener’s day, people hadn’t been to the South Pacific or Alaska, and he spent hundreds upon thousands of pages bringing them there. Modern writers aren’t afforded the same economy in descriptive passages, though there’s still an untapped wanderlust simmering in the souls of many a cubical-bound 9-to-5er. So where would you like to take your readership? Where would you like, figuratively speaking, to spend your next few years as you working on this story? Tahiti? Zimbabwe? Tanzania? Transylvania?
Of course, location does not a story make, but location or setting, or the understanding that the writer’s goal is to introduce his readers to a foreign world should be a wellspring of inspiration.
Think about it. What is a world?
- an area, sphere, or realm considered as a complete environment
- any field of human activity or way of life or those involved in it
- a period or state of existence
- the total circumstances and experience of an individual that make up his life
What worlds fascinate you?
Can you imagine yourself smack in the center of the Rwandan Civil War or in Jewish Spain during the Alhambra Decree? How about the Iroquois Nation circa 1770… pastoral America 2080 B.C.?
Maybe you’d like to explore the world of an Atlantic king crab fisherman… a mid-life divorcee… a Jesuit missionary? How about a Nazi war criminal on the lam in 1980? Or owning a five-and-dime in the midst of a power plant piracy in California? How’s espionage in the gaming world strike you?
Transporting your reader into another person’s everyday orbit, as basic as it sounds, is what story is all about. And there are infinite worlds from which to choose, as well as infinite combinations of worlds. Look at Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot. Between two covers we canvas the inner and external stomping grounds of a collegiate, a schizophrenic scientist, and a young love-struck man searching the world over to find his bride. Eugenides’ previous novel Middlesex brought us into the coming of age world of a hermaphrodite.
The sky’s not even the limit. Let your mind list as many worlds as you can. When you’re done, see if any of them sound unique enough, intriguing enough to dive in heart, soul, and keyboard.