World Building: Paint Me A Picture by Kari Gregg

Whether you write scifi, paranormals or gritty contemps, writing means world-building. That world can look very like our own. It can even be identical to our own, with countless hours invested in researching locations to make sure the gas station your hero stops at for two lines in Chapter Twelve truly is on that corner (and takes fifteen minutes to reach via Greene Street)…but it’s still world-building. It’s the world you create — the place your characters connect, interact and move within. Your world sets the tone of the piece and a strong one can become as distinctive as any character inside it.

Anyone I’ve ever critiqued for can tell you that one of my stock phrases is “paint me a picture.” That’s what we writers do. We tell stories, of course, but we tell those stories by painting pictures in reader’s minds, one mental landscape after another, portraits that stir emotion, make us gasp, shiver and ache. Collectively, those pictures are the movie that plays inside our heads and it’s our job, as writers, to bring that movie to life for our readers, as sharply as we can.

I, Omega by Kari GreggSometimes, that movie is supposed to be blurred around the edges, though, even jerk in & out of focus. I, Omega was like that: disjointed and disorienting. Gabriel was completely outside his ken in that shifter world. He didn’t know what was happening to him or why, what the rules were. He didn’t understand the hormones driving him, as he transitioned from human sub to the mate of a shifter alpha. Chaos. Everything about Gabriel was chaos, within and without. So the world he experienced (the world the reader is drawn into) reflects the tumult boiling inside him. There’s very little back story and context because Gabriel has no context. He’s lost, utterly lost in that world, and through him, so are we.

Collared by Kari GreggOther times, the pictures we draw are ever-shifting because the world the characters occupy is in transition, some of them on par with a cataclysmic shift in the social order. What was law on page one of Collared might result in arrest by The End. As a rare anomaly, Connor feels very vulnerable and alone — which is why his exposure to the world outside his office building narrows as the story unfolds. The book starts with Connor returning from a lunch outside work and we never venture from the building again. When David collars him, Connor is limited to two floors, work and home, and can go nowhere without a chaperone. At one point, he can’t even go to his office; it’s too dangerous.

Connor’s environment in Collared reflects his growing sense of isolation. He reacts to the alarming societal changes by pulling deeper inside himself, until even the internet and the headlines of a newspaper are too much for him. He closes the laptop. He refuses to process what that headline means. His world has narrowed to pinpoint.

The world you create isn’t just a setting for the story, peeps. It really isn’t.

In the Red by Kari GreggWhen Zachary and Brian go on the run in In the Red, they flee to a farmhouse in Burkittsville, Maryland, home of the Blair Witch. Yes, I’m incredibly lazy, but I didn’t pick that area because my husband is from there and I was familiar with it already, yanno. I chose Burkittsville because Brian would see it as creepy, unsettling. Haunted. As haunted as he is. The modern legend of the Blair Witch is 100% fiction. My husband was born and raised there. Trust me, there’s corn and cows. That’s it. No witch. But people believe it. They’re invested in it, just like Brian has invested in his paranoia.

Setting is just a collection of props and coordinates on a map. World? A story’s world is everything. It doesn’t just tell us where. It reveals something about our characters – something vital. Your world should enhance the plot and help move that plot along. Use your world to reflect mood and tone. Focus that world like a laser on the conflicts brewing inside your heroes.

Setting is just a blank canvas, but world building is your palette.

Paint me a picture.

Kari Gregg lives in the mountains of Wild and Wonderful West Virginia with her Wonderful husband and three very Wild children. Once Kari discovered the fabulous play land of erotic romances at RWA’s National Conference in 2009, the die was cast. Finally! A market for the smoking hot stories she loves!

When Kari’s not writing, she enjoys reading, coffee, zombie flicks, coffee, naked mud-wrestling (not really), and…coffee!

Find Kari on her website, Facebook, Goodreads and Twitter.

14 thoughts on “World Building: Paint Me A Picture by Kari Gregg

  1. mc

    Kari, great post.

    I think that part of successful world-building is the author really believing in the world he/she has created…if the writer isn’t fully engaged, it’s hard for the reader to be.

    I also like your comment that “Sometimes, that movie is supposed to be blurred around the edges, though, even jerk in & out of focus.” Not that I’m a writer, but I think it doesn’t always have to be a high-definition image to make an impact; sometimes an Impressionist painting that leaves interpretation to the viewer can be even more effective.


    1. Yup, mc. If the author hasn’t bought into the world, readers sure won’t.

      How readers experience your story world will — and should — very much rely on the characters who move inside it. The world serves the characters, is meant to enhance and emphasize your heroes. We writers can build elaborate worlds inside our head, but if revealing all the nooks and crannies of that world doesn’t build up who your heroes are and what is happening to them? Not cool. LOVE the Impressionist metaphor, btw. :-D


  2. Great post, Kari. :-)

    I agree. Whatever world you build you need to be consistent, and whenever its placed in an actual location it better be accurate. Someone somewhere is going to know firsthand. For one of my location researches I drew on my own memories of the area, googled everything right down to the native grasses, and even wandered into local area chat rooms to pick up local slang and hangouts. Even after all that one of my beta readers pointed out “you may want to check out the actual sunrise schedule for that time
    of year”. ;-)


    1. Yes, if you’re going for total realism, you need to be consistent, but at the same time…maybe not. I’m thinking of Tara Janzen’s Steel Street Series. It’s a het mainstream series I feel in love with, set predominantly in Denver, but in her acknowledgments, the author fesses up to taking creative license with the layout of the city, especially certain parts of the city. I thought it worked very well. BUT the author needs that warning, so the reader knows you’ve messed with their reality. Thanks for stopping by, LC! :-)


  3. Lisa

    As a reader I appreciate when an author “paints me a picture”. I love when I’m reading a story and I feel like I’m almost right there with the characters, in their world. Now that I think about it, some of my favorite books are by authors that are able to do this. I’m sure it must be a lot of work for the writer, but it definitely benefits their stories and those reading them.


  4. I know we’ve emailed back and forth, Kari, but I wanted to say it here too that this post got me thinking about my own writing of the world in Splinters. Thank you for guesting today! :D


    1. Thanks for having me, Thorny! Playing with the world is the fun part. Even staging for a contemp in the world as we know it, without the furry or fanged. Just remember that it’s all about the movie, what sets the tape rolling in your head. ;-)


  5. Pingback: World Building with Thorny |

  6. I’ve shared this before, but there’s one well-known M/M romance novel (which happens to be the GoodReads M/MR group’s BOM next month, hint hint) which is set IN MY HIGH SCHOOL. (Same name, same city, same middle school name which feeds into it. Yes, it was my high school.) I’m fairly certain the authors (hint hint) NEVER expected to have someone FROM the school read their work.

    But quite obviously they’d never been to my high school or looked it up on Google Earth because even the layout was so wrong. And of course I couldn’t help but mentally wander around my high school trying to make it fit into what I physically KNEW to be accurate. It was like the 3rd M/M book I ever read too.

    I have a very odd relationship with that book that no one else can have because of this. I like the story, but it doesn’t fit what I know of the school or the culture (at the time I went there, which was the early 90s, though I went back to the school several times in the late 90s for events, to talk to my old teachers, etc. The story was released in 2007.)

    Just had to share. Special circumstances, but it just goes to show, don’t ever take ANYTHING for granted. Particularly if you plan to use something which actually exists. =)


    1. Weird that whichever author this is would be so specific about naming the place if they were just going to make up the details anyway. Why not just use a fake place then?

      Good thing to keep in mind, though, authors: Somewhere out there an Adara might be lurking to catch you faking it! :D


      1. That’s what I wondered. In order to get through the story, I had to pretend it was some other high school, because it sure wasn’t mine. =)

        I suspect, though I’ve never asked, that they decided to look up an area high school which had a decent baseball record in the recent past and went with one. I don’t know why they picked mine specifically. I meant to email and ask and just never got around to it.


        1. I have to say, that would annoy me. Considerably. *sigh*

          It’d still be cool to see some version of my old school in a book, though, considering there were less than 100 of us in my graduating class. LOL


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