World Building in the Real World

When writers talk about “world building” they mean more than just setting. Setting is where a story takes place. But a fictional world is setting, history, the special rules of that particular place, the people who inhabit that world, as well as the general tone or atmosphere that sort of floats over every page. The setting of the Harry Potter books is England, but in order to build her fictional world, J.K. Rowling had to determine that magic exists, that wizards and ghosts and various magical creatures exist, that they are regulated by laws, that wars between differing factions have occurred in the past, and that the atmosphere inside her books would shift from lighthearted wonderment to a pervasive sense of dread as the stories progressed.

But what about books set in the real world, books where there are no house elves or flying buses? Do you still have to build your fictional world if your story is set in a recognizable place where gravity still exists and you don’t have to catch people up on the history of the Great Wizarding Wars?


Tess of the d’Urbervilles is also set in England, but in Thomas Hardy’s fictional world men and women live by the special rules of rigid social and religious dictates about sexual purity. They are also governed by classism, and whether characters might scoff at the social hierarchy or not, these rules also dictate daily life, whether one is on the top of the pile or the bottom. Hardy also weaves in an atmosphere that vacillates between the idyllic countryside filled with humble peasants, and the corrupted estate homes of the wealthy.

Hardy was obsessed with purity: purity of women, purity of milk. It was kind of a lot IMO.

So even though Tess of the d’Urberilles is set in the real world, and would have been an immediately recognizable setting to anyone living in the late 1800s, Hardy still had to do the work to put together his version of the real world, one that would best frame the story he wanted to tell.

My novel, Mona at Sea, is set in Tucson, AZ during the Great Recession. I’ll get to how I chose Tucson in a minute, because I first I want to talk about the Great Recession.

Is a book set in 2009 historical fiction at this point? Jeez, I hope not, but part of my world building involved me reminding readers just what the world looked like 11 years ago: CASH 4 GOLD signs everywhere, half-finished housing tracts left abandoned, professional people walking around still using Blackberries, job networking seminars packed full of hopeful people clutching résumés, and red Breaking News chyrons running all day and night with headlines about the latest big companies to go bankrupt.

As usual, South Park nailed it.

These little details do more than color the story – they are the special rules that govern my fictional world. Harry Potter wasn’t allowed to practice magic off the grounds of Hogwarts, Tess couldn’t marry the man she loved because another man had forced himself on her, and my character Mona Mireles can’t find a job because the economy is in a tailspin. These little details also convey history. If I say my book takes place in 2009 you might remember that was the same year as the inauguration of Barack Obama, Michael Jackson’s death, or Bernie Madoff, or Balloon Boy.

I cannot tell you how hard I fell for the Balloon Boy hoax. I. WAS. RIVETED.

And when I say that my book is set during the Great Recession, that also gives an indication as to the general atmosphere of the novel – a world gripped by financial panic, corporate greed, and a Wall St. vs. Main St. narrative playing nightly on TV – and the ordinary people trapped inside a giant machine they had no hand in building.

Setting the book in Tucson was more of a practical choice than anything else. I knew as I was envisioning the book that Mona’s parents would be scientists involved in medical research. I also knew that, though the title refers to a metaphoric sea, Mona was actually going to be wandering through a spiritual desert, and so I wanted a location that was hot, dry, and blandly suburban. That sounds exactly like South Texas! I thought, which is exactly where I’m from. But the parts of South Texas I know intimately don’t have any major medical research institutions, so they wouldn’t work. I was also reluctant to set my first book in Texas, a state that is so loaded with history and pre-conceived notions and general Texas-ness that I thought it would be better to avoid it. I have only ever visited Tucson, but my husband lived there for nine years and graduated from U of A, and so, I decided that Tucson would be my ideal setting.

And come on – it’s gorgeous.

The blandly suburban thing was important to me, too. I wanted Mona to live in a suburb that could have been any suburb – same Starbucks, same Target, same PF Changs fronting the same dough-colored mall with the same bubbling fountain outside the Coach store. The suburbs in Richard Linklater’s film, SubUrbia and Mike Judge’s King of the Hill were eerily similar to where I grew up, and I was even more shocked when I left home for college and moved to Syracuse, NY, Birmingham, AL, Lawrence, KS and the SF Bay Area, and realized that the sameness was everywhere, that America had been flattened by corporate chains. This is no slight against Tucson, but more a commentary that, in the 21st century, American communities have lost a lot of what makes them unique. In that sense I think the world I built for my novel was the world as it existed in 2009, but maybe also what I hoped the world would steer away from in the future. 

Author: Elizabeth Gonzalez James

Before becoming a writer Elizabeth was a waitress, a pollster, an Avon lady, and an opera singer. Her stories and essays have appeared in Ploughshares Blog, The Idaho Review, The Rumpus, and elsewhere, and have received multiple Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominations. Her debut novel, MONA AT SEA, was a finalist in the 2019 SFWP Literary Awards judged by Carmen Maria Machado, and is forthcoming, Summer 2021, from Santa Fe Writers Project. Originally from South Texas, Elizabeth now lives with her family in Oakland, California.