Many of the friends who read one or more of the early drafts of Fellow Travellers have complimented it as a good example of “worldbuilding,” which is a term I’ve struggled with insofar as it applies to my own work. It’s true that in writing Fellow Travellers, I was constructing a culture, a community, even a system of law and governance for my time travellers more or less from scratch. But in the strictest sense of the word, the “world” that my time travellers inhabit is not any different form our own.
Obviously I’m being too conservative in my definition of “worldbuilding,” but one of the reasons I’ve been reluctant to take the title of “worldbuilder” is because I was never hunched over a desk, drawing intricate maps of fictional geography, developing fictional languages and intricate fictional mythology and history that would never be fully explained in the text. In short, I didn’t do a lot of Tolkien-style worldbuilding for Fellow Travellers.
The problem is not that I don’t like doing that kind of research and worldbuilding; it’s that I enjoy it too much. I sometimes worry—perhaps unreasonably—that I’ll get into a place of convincing myself that worldbuilding is the same as writing, rather than something that ought to supplement the writing. With Fellow Travellers, and other drafts, I worried if I started out on too many such side projects, I’d never actually write the damn book.
Whenever possible, I tried to set scenes in locations I was intimately familiar with and felt I could describe in detail. For this reason, a number of chapters take place on the campus of Ohio University in Athens, for the simple reason that I needed that sequence to occur on a college campus and as an OU graduate, I felt confident that I could take my characters through Alden Library and get their movements and pacing and surroundings correct. I felt comfortable in familiar territory, so the writing felt comfortable and the reading feels comfortable.
In other instances where I was writing about a location I’ve never been to, I tried to do plenty of photographic research, making extensive use of Google Maps, so I could describe the geography in accurate, if slightly more general terms.
But I never sat down and drew any maps. And now, I think I need to start.
When I first started outlining and making plans for the sequel to Fellow Travellers, I knew that a great deal of it would take place aboard an 18th century sailing ship, and frankly, my experience with setting multiple chapters on a moving train in Fellow Travellers should have taught me a lesson. That lesson is, when characters spend enough time in a vehicle, the vehicle stops being a vehicle and becomes geography. And whenever something becomes geography, if you want to write about it, you need a map.
Despite how obvious this lesson should have been, I resisted it for a long time, and now I find myself hunched over a desk, sketching designs for an 18th century sailing ship. For similar reasons, soon I think I shall need to sketch designs for a French monastery, a World War I dirigible, the hidden time traveller sailing routes of the Caribbean Sea, a Parisian cabaret, and a windswept New England whaling village.
And somewhere in between all that, I’ll write the damn book.