Contemporary World-Building

Shelf of booksI always say I don’t write historical romance novels because the research is daunting.  If you get something wrong in a historical, your readers will know.  Were there trains in Wyoming in 1865?  Did people take baths in Italy in 1838? What did they eat on the long journey the Santa Maria took from the old world to the new world?  What rights did women have in Colonial India?

It’s a lot of work.  And I’m lazy.  I do have two historical novels I’ve written, but are not ready for publication.  I know I’ve gotten a ton of elements wrong.  I know there is more research to be done.  I would just change them to contemporaries to make it easier, but the tropes I’m using would never translate to contemporary times.  I’ve thought about both of those stories for years.  The stories are good, the plots are awesome.  It’s all that troublesome historical detail that has me hung up.

So I write contemporaries.  But even in contemporary stories, there is research, and world building.  How many hours a day does an architect work, and how much money does he make?  Do firemen sleep at their fire stations?  Can a woman who owns a coffee-shop-slash-bakery ever take a day off?  What does a rural veterinarian’s day look like?

This takes some research too.  I don’t want my characters to seem unrealistic, and I also want them to live “normal” lives, whatever that means.  I know a lot about what I do for a living, and what a day for me is like, but I’m not writing about me.  So the research has to happen.

I also have to build realistic scenes, realistic events, and realistic living situations.  What is the weather in October like in Wisconsin, as opposed to California?  What are holiday events like in rural areas, as opposed to urban areas?  What kinds of industry might be more likely in Pennsylvania, as opposed to Montana?  Is there a lake, ocean, or river?  Or just a lot of rocks and pine trees?  Are there wild animals, or just the neighbor’s dogs?  j

This takes thought, as well as some research.  In my first novel, set in a generic town in Wisconsin in October, the heroine runs a bed and breakfast in a town known for fall tourism and antiquing, and the hero is a fire chief.  Halloween and the season’s first snowfall came at the same time in that story, because, in Wisconsin, that can happen.  I wouldn’t have known that if I hadn’t gone and looked it up.  The young fire chief lived at the fire station.  The heroine was extremely busy on the weekends, but not so much during the week, as she had guests in her B & B from Friday through Sunday.

Scene-building and world-building are important to make a story believable, but also to set a certain tone for the characters, and by extension, the readers. We read for entertainment, and all of that work on building the world our characters are living in, even if it is modern day, makes all the difference.  Our readers get to escape to someone else’s, world, even if only for a couple hundred pages.

My research begins with Google, and often ends at the local library and a well-read reference librarian.  Yes, even for a contemporary novel, there is research to be done.  It’s a good thing I like libraries.  And there’s no better research partner than an excited reference librarian.

How do you do your research for world-building?  Do you write a particular genre because of the research (either because you like the research or are avoiding doing too much research, like me)?  What are your go-to sources?  Would love to hear your comments!

8 thoughts on “Contemporary World-Building

  1. You are so right, Susabelle! I just finished writing my second contemporary-set romance and even it required some research. But I would encourage you to keep working on your historical-set novels. Research isn’t that bad. There are a lot of books that can help and after you’ve set one story in a particular time/world, you don’t have to research that much for the next one set there.

    • One of them is set in Italy in 1840. I had an amazing reference librarian working with me, and there is seriously NO information out there about this era. At that time Italy was sill a series of city-states and there were just no records kept because of the upheaval of feudalism going on in that area at that time. The story is a good one, the plot is solid and the characters are great, but I can’t get enough cultural information to make it work. Frustrating! The second one is set in Civil War-era Wyoming and Washington, D.C. The research is daunting. So, the story is good, but I don’t have all the detail I need to get it written. I still have hope that someday I’ll have the time to do that research, but for now, it isn’t happening.

  2. I have to clear my browsing history almost every day. Not because of what’s on it, but just to keep my computer running. Google is my friend.

    • haha Sandra! I use google a LOT. Sometimes it’s a quick lookup, sometimes I end up crawling through the rabbit hole for four hours. It is amazing what we can find easily online now. How did we do it before? I don’t remember!

  3. I’ve written 3 western historical novels and one contemporary and you’re right, Susabelle, there is still world building in contemporary novels. Language is one thing few people think about. I’ve read western historicals with the most awful modern language; the author obviously didn’t bother to use an etymological dictionary. But it also applies to different areas of the US. No one in NY would say, “I’m fixin’ to go downtown” while in TX they most certainly would!

    • That too, Andrea! Also, the names have to be right. I stopped reading a historical western within the first few pages when the heroine was named “Tiffany” and her best friend “Meghan.” It didn’t work at all!

  4. Great topic, Susabelle. I, too, write contemporary for the most part, but my first novella was a vintage historical set in 1967. I had a blast doing the research for the period. Part of my main research was the music (and bands) of the 60s, which I happen to love. I had to research the Vietnam war and that was a very difficult part of the work because it’s so heart breaking what so many went through (and do today) because of war.

    For my contemporary book about a female veterinarian and an EMTP I had to find out medical stuff and medi-flight. For that I googled a lot, then contacted a mediflight org. in Missouri, the state my book is set in, and was put in touch with a wonderful woman who’d spent 25 years in the mediflight service as a nurse and administrator, not all of it spent in a helicopter though. We spent a looong time on the phone one day after I’d sent an accident scene from my book to her to read. For the vet’s part I already know a lot having grown up on farms and treating our own animals a lot of the time, but there were parts I needed a professional’s input and made phone calls. I never hesitate to either email or, when possible, make a phone call in the name of research, especially if I can’t find the answer to a specific situation. 🙂 Once I needed specifics on police badges in a certain city/state. I googled that city’s police dept. then emailed in general and was put in touch with a person for the division I was needing, and then got a rewarding email response from the Lieutenant of the division in question (I believe it was narcotics). I don’t love historical (regency type) research for the reasons you don’t, but I do love contemporary and vintage research!

  5. I write paranormal Romance. But you still have to get it right according to the rules of the world you built. I am also writing a mystery not sure how cozy it will end up. But need every day items as ingredients for a bomb. Didn’t mKe it hero just found ingredients, worried about my browsing history for two weeks afterward. A mystery writer friend wound up on a watch list when she tried to fly due to her browsing history. Rethinking that story.

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