[Guest Post 001] World Building: Everybody’s got to live somewhere, right? With Alida Winternheimer

In Editing, Guest Blog by Simon Whistler3 Comments

alidaguestpostcoverToday I am delighted to usher in a brand new element of Rocking Self-Publishing. Guest posts. In case you missed me bringing these up on the podcast last Thursday, I’m doing this so that RSP can provide really in depth information on a specific element of writing, and the business around books. Today’s post is by Alida Winternheimer. Alida was a guest on the podcast back in episode 58, she’s my editor, and has been an immense help improving my craft. I’m so pleased that she came back for this inaugural guest post because I really couldn’t think of a better way to kick this off. Without much further ado, let me pass you over to Alida, who is telling us all about world building… 

You can listen to an audio reading of this podcast if you like! Just click play in the player below.

Most of us take location for granted.


Photo by Yvonne Wooi for HOBT May Day Parade

I’ve lived in Minnesota most of my life. You know how often some cool thing comes onto my radar and I wonder why I’ve never heard of it, or haven’t visited it once in all these years? From tunnels to islands to towers, I’m out of touch. I finally got to the Heart of the Beast Puppet Theater’s May Day Parade for the first time last year, and I’ve known about it for at least a decade. Just the name guarantees its cool factor, so why did it take me so long?

Because I’m a lifer and not a tourist. Some people really experience their locations, and others just live there. Don’t get me wrong, I have my fun and favorite places, and I’m sure you do, too. But if you’re at all like me, you also take your hometown for granted and miss out on a lot of cool stuff.

And that’s not good enough. Not for your story. Not if you want it to be memorable for your reader.

Remember Ferris Bueller? “Bueller?…Bueller?…Bueller?”

(You don’t know Ferris Bueller? Seriously? Go get it.)

Remember Ferris in the leopard print vest singing “Twist and Shout” on a parade float in downtown Chicago? The Sears Tower? The stock exchange? The Art Institute? Wrigley Field? The water tower with “Save Ferris” painted on it?

Of course you do. Why? Because the setting is as great as the characters. Hell, it is a character. And why did John Hughes pick Chicago’s northern suburbs and the Windy City itself for so many of his stories? Because it’s where he grew up—write what you know. (Want to know more about the locations in the film? Check out The Worldwide Guide to Movie Locations.)

Imagine Ferris and his friends playing hooky in the burbs. They could share all the same dialogue, all the same shenanigans, but at the local mall. Maybe talk the meaning of life over an Orange Julius and have panic attacks in The Gap.

I don’t think so. (Irony and satire aside, of course.)

You’ve got some world building to do now, don’t you? Whether you’re putting your characters home on the range or exploring distant galaxies or in your own backyard, you’ve got to make it real for the reader by making it as lush and lively as your (often-overlooked) real-life world.

But how?

Let’s cover some key factors in world building.

  • Necessity

If you’re telling a family drama, you’ll need a home where they live. If you’re telling a techno-thriller, you’ll need a gritty urban setting, not a bucolic one. If you’re telling a romance, you’ll need a bedroom. Obviously you can play with such expectations, but generally speaking, action has to take place somewhere that makes sense with the storyline.

  • Convention

If you’re writing an epic fantasy, you need to build an entire world with forests, oceans, mountains, palaces, cities, fairy villages, etc. And within that world, your characters will need homes—if only to leave them—beds or bedrolls, horses or flying motorcycles… Genre conventions help you define reader expectations. If you’re going to defy reader expectations, do it wisely.

  • Research and Technology

What was it really like back then? What was possible then? What is plausible in the future? Some writers are setting stories back a decade or two just to get away from all the pocket technology we have now. If you want someone’s car to break down on the roadside, you have to deal with her cell phone or set the story in the past.

Imagine Buffy the Vampire Slayer today. She would never have to hoof it between the Bronze and the library. She could summon the Scoobies with a group text. Imagine how much less peril there would have been with smart phones!

In “Never Kill a Boy on the First Date,” Buffy notes that it is the 1990’s and she can be the Slayer and have a social life, “Clark Kent has a job. I just wanna go on a date.” As she heads out after her fun, she quips, “If the apocalypse comes, beep me.” (See IMDB for more quotes from this episode.)

  • Rules

You establish rules for your world, even if it’s present day and reality-based. Once you set the rules, you can’t violate them. If you give a character a limp and he gets chased by a bad guy, he has to contend with that limp. He can’t escape by speed over uneven, treacherous ground. Change the ground or change the limp.

  • Atmosphere

Atmosphere should envelop the reader the way warmth or cold does. It establishes mood and should work to enhance the experience of the story. Why do so many scary things happen on dark and stormy nights? Because bright sunny days aren’t very scary. In The Murder in Skoghall, I open with a lovely spring, and as my haunting escalates, grass dies and humidity rises. The climate becomes uncomfortable. Of course, a huge summer storm rolls in for the climax. Is it conventional? Sure, and it works.

  • Characters Are the Product of Their Time & Place

Imagine a woman in Victorian times vs. the 1960s vs. today. How different are her ideals, goals, attitudes, available role models? And then consider her individual upbringing. Is she raised with books? Does her family discuss current events at the dinner table? Or is the house somber with a Bible in every room? Is the furniture antique or modern? Is the decor homey or chic?

Now expand this notion outside the home. Is she living somewhere rural or urban? Imagine the different attitudes of different communities. And the opportunities available in different places.

In Footloose, Ren MacCormack is a hip urban kid forced to relocate to a small town where the local preacher has banned music and dancing as corrupt. Besides not fitting in with the locals and an uncle who rides his ass, he falls for the preacher’s daughter. If that’s not enough trouble for one teenager, he takes on the preacher and town council to get the kids a prom.

The source of Ren’s conflict is his location. Everything about this town is against him. He can’t flee—too young—so he has to fight. Fight to dance, that is.

In case you’re wondering if Kevin Bacon’s still got the moves, check out this appearance on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show.

Back to your story: expand your location beyond the town. Mississippi or Colorado? Minnesota or Nevada?

Now ask yourself what is going on in the nation?

My book, Saving Annabelle, is set in the 1860s – 70s. I brought in references to the Civil War, the U.S.-Lakota War, first wave feminism, health spas, and Freeman Schools. Why? Because our characters don’t live in a vacuum and external events factor into their lives, just like technology.

Sure, you can choose to ignore some of that stuff. I mean, I would never write a shopaholic sitting at a computer, clicking the buy button. I’d put a location-appropriate store in my world and see what kind of trouble she can get herself into. See, that woman with a shopping addiction will go about it differently if her store of choice is WalMart or Macy’s.

  • Harmony or Conflict

Characters will either be in harmony or conflict with their settings.

If your character’s goal is to summit a mountain, the mountain is going to be one of the challenges he faces. If your hero has infiltrated the villain’s lair, again, the setting will be fraught with danger. But settings can be sources of conflict in more mundane, subtle ways. As such, you can use your setting to create internal conflict. It can also be great material for layering subtext into your prose. This is easily seen when characters are forced to be in a setting they did not choose: the kid in the parents’ house, the person stuck in the dying town, the great job in the crappy city. But sometimes we choose our location, then regret it or can’t handle it for any number of reasons.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking world building is only for fantasy authors. It’s for you, too.



Live music, dancing, and Seva at the May Day Parade.

Need more evidence?

Look around your home. You chose it. You arranged the furniture. You picked out colors for the walls and hung the art. What’s more, it is a reflection of you. That, my friend, is world building. Now get busy and do the same for your characters. And if you’ve got a May Day Parade in your hometown, just go!





Alida Winternheimer is a writer, editor, and teacher. She realizes her pop-culture references date her, but as she says, every character is a product of her time and place. Find her at www.wordessential.com. Get tips and video tutorials at www.wordessential.com/blog.

Simon Whistler[Guest Post 001] World Building: Everybody’s got to live somewhere, right? With Alida Winternheimer
  • Thanks Alida. I’m afraid this is one of my weak points. At the moment, though, I finishing up my first MG novel. My protagonist is a Navy Brat in 1968 who loses his father when the Navy sub USS Scorpion is lost at sea (that part is true). I enjoyed writing the setting because I was a Navy brat to a lifer and then spent 4 years enlisted myself. It was fun capturing the sights, sounds, and smells of a Navy pier, something that most will never experience. I even had the chance to finally tell readers what the ocean smells like (dead things). It’s harder when my scenes move into places I haven’t actually been, but I know I need to work on that. Thanks from Michigan! And I’ve never been the Pictured Rocks.

    • Alida Winternheimer

      Hi Ron,

      Glad you enjoyed the post. How cool that you got to incorporate all that stuff you know from your life experiences! Especially since it’s stuff most of us aren’t familiar with. Plenty of my settings are foreign to me. We do the best we can with research, imagination, and projecting what we know onto what we are writing about.

  • This was very good. I think when people hear “world building,” they are reminded of Game of Thrones or the Wheel of Time books with the pages and pages of maps and the glossary in the back with all the words they made up in their “language.” Your statement about people making the mistake that world building is only for fantasy authors was spot on. Thanks!