William Ritter takes readers for a ride through nineteenth-century New England in his upcoming debut novel,Jackaby. The author discusses his world-building approach for the YA supernatural mystery.
You’re not writing a book, you’re writing a bus pass. It doesn’t matter if you’re taking readers a hundred years into the future or to your own backyard—they still need to get there, and you’re the one behind the wheel. So, button up that starchy polyester uniform and start thinking about three things: rules, routes, and riders.
Rules: As the driver, it’s your job to post the rules at the front of the bus. Figure it all out, from hard science to social graces. Don’t worry, you’re only making these rules so that you can break them.
It’s these exceptions that make the story fun, but if you fail to establish guidelines first, then your “loose cannon” cop or rebellious heroine will fall flat. You can’t be extraordinary if there is no ordinary.
Jackaby is a supernatural mystery set in 1892. To build my world, I had to re-create a believable nineteenth-century New England, and then seat my own paranormal reality within it. This required big things, like setting the rules of magic, and little things, like repairing cobblestones and following women’s fashion. Getting the big things wrong might have made the world feel fake, but I found that getting the little things right was what made the world feel real.
Routes: People will like or dislike your book just the same whether you’re going to Nantucket or Narnia, so in the words of a man named Book, “How you get there is the worthier part” (Firefly).
If you can stay consistent but unobtrusive and balance the logical and illogical, then you’re in for a smooth ride and happy passengers. Make maps, family trees, and character bios that no one will ever see—but remember that readers don’t need to know everything. If you drone on about how the atmosphere of your alien world is 75 percent nitrogen and 21 percent oxygen on page one, then your passengers will leap from the moving bus by page two. Be subtle, slipping in details when relevant.
While you’re at it, be logical. Think about how the dark overlord’s monolith would affect banal things like traffic. Don’t be too logical, though, because reality doesn’t work like that. If things are too perfect and orderly, they will feel just as wrong as if they made no sense at all.
Beyond including little details like gaslights and carriages, one of the things I pushed myself to think about was how my city had evolved on top of itself over many years. As a result, the streets don’t follow a perfect grid, but wind around in a confusing web. This adds realism to the setting, and it also accents my narrator’s struggle to get her bearings in a new town and a new life.
Riders: Finally, remember that every passenger is unique. Some savor the complex inner workings of elven councils. Others won’t even bother finishing the first chapter if there isn’t an action beat on every page.
You can’t make extra stops. Everyone gets the same book. The best that you can do is offer them the trip that you would want to take.