World Building Meets the Real World

by Ruth Tenzer Feldman
Published on: October 4, 2013
Comments: No Comments

Florrie-crop-lo-resThe woman in this photograph had a real name and lived a real life that I have yet to learn. In my enthusiasm to build the world behind my historical novel, Blue Thread, I named her Florence Steinbacher (“Florrie”) and made her the never-seen best friend of Miriam Josefsohn, the main character in the story.

When the Blue Thread story was over, Miriam was ready to melt back into my brain, but Florrie was not. Maybe it was because I still had her photograph. Maybe it was because she was part of the backstory for a companion novel, The Ninth Day, which is told by Miriam’s granddaughter. Maybe it was because I didn’t have the creative energy to jump into writing the next book, but I wanted to keep crafting narrative.

Whatever the reason, Florrie sprang to life. She took over my blog on July 11 this past summer and posted four times a week through Sept. 27. Florrie continued to tell us about her best friend “Mim” from 1912 (when Blue Thread ended) through 1950 (14 years before the start of The Ninth Day). Florrie’s blog posts turned into about 36,000 words. You can download her story as a free e-book or a pdf when you sign up for my mailing list (with no obligation to actually read my infrequent newsletters!). Florrie would like all that attention.

Here’s what I’ve learned in the process of letting Florrie have her head (or mine):

  • Following a character through several decades, in memoir style, is easier than building an entire world for a particular era. The real world of events gives us plenty of material to supplement the fictional world of the characters’ lives.
  • World building tools work on the macro level as well as the micro level. In a post about world building, Cat Winters suggested giving your character a birthday party. What gifts would (s)he get? What would be served? How would (s)he react? In my world building, I gave Florrie (and, through Florrie’s eyes, Miriam) World Wars I and II, and the Russian Revolution, and the Berkeley fire of 1923, and chronicled their reactions.
  • The real world seems ready to embrace the fictional world we writers craft for our characters. At least one blogger, for example, “interviewed” Mary Shelley Black, the fictional protagonist of Cat Winters’ In the Shadow of Blackbirds. In Istanbul, Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk has constructed a real museum to house artifacts from his novel, The Museum of Innocence. Go see all 4,213 cigarette butts touched by a fictional character. And Florrie, I must admit, still has a Twitter account.

What will come of all this world building within the real world? Will technology and imagination conspire to inextricably entwine reality and fiction? Does anybody care? Hello, out there….

While I wait for an answer, Florrie is content with her compilation of blog posts, and I’ve started to build the backstory and world for my next full-length narrative.





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