I’ve been spending a lot of time lately worldbuilding. Or rather, buildingbuilding. One of the projects I’ve had waiting in the wings needed to be taken to the next step. And the main setting for this story is a building, not a world. Since the Noon Onyx novels have such a sprawling setting, designing a smaller set that’s interesting enough to serve as the backdrop for two novels (the intended length of the project) is challenging, but one I’ve taken on happily. Since I haven’t posted in a while, I figured I’d share some thoughts about my buildingbuilding process. It’s too early, however, to share the building from my WIP, so I’m going to use my somewhat silly water tower as the building example for this post.
Here are some of the things I consider as I build a building that will serve as a significant set for one of my stories:
Not all buildings need names, but if your building is going to be a big part of your story, consider giving it a proper name. The first thing I did when trying to think of a name for my MC’s home was a search for “famous water towers.” I wasn’t sure what I’d find. Maybe nothing. But the internet instantly delivered inspirational info. This link takes you to a list of the 10 Coolest Water Towers. (Who knew, right? Some of you may be in the business of constructing water towers, but for the rest of us, lists like this are a nice surprise). So I glanced through the pics. They looked neat. Whimsical. Interesting.
But I don’t want to use any of these water towers exactly. I want to build a water tower for my story that’s unique. So I decided the water tower should look like a light bulb. And it should be painted yellow – as in, American cheese colored yellow. (If you’re wondering why a light bulb or American cheese, see my Unspiration post where this cockamamie story idea first originated).
I decided to name the water tower The Edison.
The water tower in my sample story isn’t going to store water. It’s going to be the main character’s home. Its purpose is to serve as living space. So I searched the internet for water towers that had been converted to residential use. Again, wasn’t sure what I’d find. But this link from i09 (People Who Live Inside Water Towers) popped up as the first result when I searched “converted water towers.” I’ll admit, I was both excited and disappointed. The post is terrific; the pictures are awesomely cool. But my water tower as personal residence idea wasn’t as original as I’d thought.
Writers (and readers who are interested in this sort of thing), this happens all the time. You think your ideas are amazing and unique… but they aren’t. This is only one of a gazillion places where your story idea will be tested. You have two choices: ditch your idea in favor of finding something more original that still suits your story purposes or continue using your not-as-fresh-as-you-thought idea. I decided that living in a water tower is still a pretty cool idea even if I’m not the first person to have thought of it. I’m going to stick with it.
My water tower isn’t being used to store water anymore. Why not? Here is where the building’s history becomes backstory. Some of this work may show up in your final manuscript, but a lot of it won’t. I started out researching why a town might abandon its water tower. I learned that the main purpose of a water tower is to maintain a constant pressure in the town’s water supply rather than supply the water directly. Interesting, but a distraction. I could have been sucked into researching how water towers work for the next half-hour or more.
But I didn’t want to get side tracked so I decided on an easy answer: the water tower was abandoned after a new one was built. (This idea also generated a possible plot idea. Maybe The Edison is scheduled for demolition. Maybe – a la Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH – the main character has to find a way to save her home by moving it somewhere else.)
What does the building look like on the outside? Since it’s fairly easy to imagine a water tower that looks like a light bulb, I’m not going to spend too much time describing The Edison. It’s worth noting here that, even though my stories focus on characters, I more often print out pictures of places when I’m writing, which I then tack up in my office to convey a particular tone or mood. The more easily I can imagine the environment that my character exists in, the more easily I can imagine what that character is thinking, feeling, and doing inside of it.
What does your building look like on the inside? For me, this stage is driven by two considerations: the story’s needs and verisimilitude. I need the interior of my building to provide whatever rooms, hidden caches, darkened alcoves – whatever – that are required for the plot. And I want my buildings grounded in reality. The best fantasy feels like it could be real but for the fantasy elements.
So for my water tower I searched “water tower residence floor plans.” The results were interesting enough but not as inspiring as I wanted. So I searched “tree house floor plans.” That yielded all sorts of fascinating shapes and ideas to build on. I started with three basic areas (eating, sleeping, bathing) and then considered a few others based on my (albeit completely silly) story idea: a playroom for the nutria, a library for a collection of books on Varmit Crimes and Misdemeanors, a zip line hung between two old telephone poles…
I’m not going to share my rough floor plan drawing because it’s horrible. But my buildingbuilding process isn’t. If nothing else, going through this exercise for just one of the buildings in your WIP will give you a more fully fleshed out setting for at least one of your scenes. It might also give you a chance to see your WIP from a different perspective, which can generate all sorts of new plot ideas.
Writers, do you have a “buildingbuilding” process? How do you build the buildings within which your scenes take place?
I hope everyone’s writing is going well! I’ll be posting more about what else I’ve been up to later.