The Key to a Great Story – World Type: Reality


cambridge hot summer's evening

This post is about the world type I know as reality. Essentially it is a world type where the story is set in our world that has or does exist.

Based in book in reality isn’t simplistic as just saying it is set in modern day New York or Tudor London. You do have to do your research as well in order to make it authentic. This is where looking at maps, sites like Pinterest, using the search function on your web browser and even travelling to where you’re writing about comes in very handy.

A lot of the world building that you do can be based on your own experiences as well, especially if you are setting them in modern times. For example, I’m working on a script at the minute called ‘Let in the Sun’ which is partially based at Cambridge University. One of the things my main characters do is punt down the River Cam on a hot summer’s evening. I’ve written that into the story because I’ve done it and my trip there made me fall in love with the place. I have spent the grand total of a day there, but it made such an impression on me I’ve written about it since. Except of course I’ve had to research it more as well. I got a feeling for the atmosphere, but I got the details from the University and College websites.

Now that is a modern day setting. The reality world type can also include historical settings, and this where the accuracy of your research becomes all the more important. I get asked all the time whether as I writer I studied English at university; it’s nearly everybody’s assumption. They are surprised when I say that I trained as a historian; their next assumption is that I must write historical fiction. Nope, but as a trained historian I do know how to you have to do research in order to build up a picture of a by gone world; that is after all what historians do when they write history.

Constructing a world for a historical fiction, is in truth very similar to building a world up from scratch like you would for fantasy worlds which I will discuss in the next post. The problem with building an historical reality is that you do have to include some element of historical accuracy, and here in lies the problem with historical accuracy. Historians have to reconstruct the past using incomplete evidence; it is an unfortunate truth that not everything from the past survives in its entirety.

History is based on the bits that are left and the interpretation that experts have made about what those pieces can tell us. Very little of history is actually factual, it is mostly interpretative. There can be consensus’ on what happened, but a lot of what historians do is argue their case using evidence to support their interpretations. Deliberately missing out evidence in order to support their views emerged from the post-modernist movement that moved away from more structured argument building and pretty much ended when Holocaust Deniers emerged. In other words be respectful of the past, but also use more than one source of information to base your world on.

time traveller's guide to m england

The elements of creative licenses that you get though come from the fact that history is incomplete. You can use brilliant books like ‘The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England’ by Ian Mortimer (and his companion book ‘The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England) as a basis for describing the physical locations of your story, but you fill it with fictional characters. Equally you can also use the events and famous figures of history to write a work of fiction with some basis on reality and some creative license. Philippa Gregory and Hilary Mantel both use the dramas surrounding the Tutor Dynasty to write great books.

wolf hall

Writing fiction set in reality is technically limitless, because you have the entire world and its history at your fingertips. I’ve been very Eurocentric in my post, but then again I am a trained historian in European History who mostly travels about Britain. In my experience of writing fiction set in reality, which admittedly I don’t do often, I do limit myself to what I know. However, the world is an endlessly fascinating place, whether in the news or in the new interpretation history. You have plenty to use to base your story in reality.


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  1. Pingback: NaNoWriMo Update: End of Chapter 3 | The Claire Violet Thorpe Express

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