Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Pause in your writing for intense worldbuilding - "the grocery store" edition

I'm always discovering more about my Varin world. This makes sense, since every time I enter a new environment in my real world, I discover things, too. New people, new experiences. A species of caterpillar I've never seen before. Woodland flowers. New languages.

I've written an article before about how to worldbuild after you've already started a story. At the time I approached it as though this were something special and unusual. It's not, though. Even if you've spent bunches of time building your world before writing a story in it, you will, and should, keep worldbuilding as you go. You never know when you will encounter an environment that will require some thought.

I documented one example of this here on the blog when I talked about designing a pharmacy. That was fun, and you can read about it here.

Last night and this morning, I was designing a grocery store. Because in all my years of thinking and planning, and writing an entire novel in this world, none of my characters had ever visited one.

There are a surprising number of considerations that go into designing something like this, which is why I encourage you to take a pause and think it through.

When I think "grocery store," I think of the stores I always go to first thing. When I think "not like my usual store," I usually think of the grocery store I went to in Japan, Kitamura, which was quite different and which I describe here.

First things first, though. This isn't "a grocery store." This is a grocery store in the small cavern city of Daronvel, which is up in the mountains of Varin, built with the help of drills and quarrying equipment in a set of lava tunnels. You're not going to be seeing high ceilings here. The other thing you won't be seeing is a lot of lowland foods, because all of those would have to be imported from surrounding cities on the connecting roads. Imported stuff is going to be expensive, and not a lot of people in the city are going to be able to afford it - possibly a few nobles (maybe around 10?), police, and some top-level bureaucrats. Conceivably some of the region's engineers will also make enough money to afford it.

That brings us to the question of "what is local?" The region surrounding Daronvel is alpine, so I took inspiration from a place I've visited in the Alps. Honey will be available, and bushberries (like blueberries), and products of the mountain creatures that most resemble goats and sheep (cheese, meat, etc.). There are also food plants that can be grown in the caverns, such as river lettuce (a form of edible algae) and mushrooms of various varieties. The special conditions that prevent large-scale construction and agriculture on the surface - namely, wysps, for those of you who may have read Soul's Bargain (in Clarkesworld 94) - mean that there isn't a lot of grain grown here. Note for those readers: things have changed a lot socially between Soul's Bargain and the story I'm currently writing.

Okay, so at this point I have a pretty good idea of what's going to be in the store. But there's a social twist: the character going to the store is a member of the undercaste. She's not welcome in the front. So she has to go in the back door, and the merchants will be assuming that she's likely to be a shoplifter. They have quite a few undercaste customers, though, so they have a specially designed back access.

My character will have to go to the back where the loading dock is, and enter a door to one side of it. That door has a handle on the outside, but not on the inside, which means she can't open it to go back out. At that point she's standing between two rows of stainless steel bins holding merchandise. These rows are a continuous line, so she has to walk between them, picking items out of the bins. There is no wall behind them, though - it's at the back of the staff area for the grocery store. I imagine the way it feels looking through into the back of a shop or post office. Conceivably, there might be a curtain set up to keep the customer from seeing the merchants working with each other. So, back to the bins. The items there are often going to be seconds or nominally expired merchandise. At the end of the rows of bins is a counter with a merchant-caste cashier. That person has a tall shelf behind him/her where the more expensive items are kept, so they can take them down upon request. The customer is then expected to pay and package their own items in a bag or basket they have brought for themselves. Only once they have paid does the cashier release the door-latch allowing them to leave.

My immediate thought upon understanding all of this was that this is going to be a pretty nervous place to go for my main character, who is currently on the run from the police. Being trapped is not so great when you might have to escape at any moment! But she needs the food, and she's hoping to find a friend there, so I have to send her in.

Now this place feels really different, and not at all like the stores I know.

Some people might say that this kind of intense worldbuilding of such a quirky location is more fitting, or more likely to happen, in a novel. However, concentrating a lot of worldbuilding effort on a single item or location can actually gain you a lot of mileage in a short story, because this tiny peek actually can imply a whole lot about the world overall.

It's something to think about.



  1. I do this style of worldbuilding often because once I'm in the character's head, I can see with their eyes. In Shafter, I had the same moment when they needed to go to the "grocery store" and like yours, the situation was quite different from ours.

    1. Yes, indeed. It's funny and fascinating how important the character's viewpoint is to how we describe these locations..