Here’s a bland paragraph from the novel I’m working on:
She was sitting on our patched brown Victorian sofa wearing her patched blue robe. Two glasses of cider and a plate of bread and cheese and apple slices sat on a side table. She had lit a fire in the fireplace, so the front parlor wasn’t as cold as it usually was. She patted the sofa next to her, and I sat down gratefully. She snuggled up against me.
What’s wrong with that? But when my writing group was discussing this chapter, it raised a question from Mary: Where did they get the wood?
This is in the post-apocalyptic world of my Last P.I. series, so it’s not an unreasonable question. But it’s one that has never occurred to me.
World building is in some ways straightforward. For the Last P.I. world, the big picture is easy enough. There was a nuclear war a couple of decades ago; Boston is still struggling in the aftermath. People are poor; they’re still salvaging what they can from the past and figuring out how to survive in the present. And it’s also not hard to come up with lots of details to flesh out the world: people wear patched robes and sit on patched furniture. Auto parts are scarce and valuable; most people don’t have central heat or electricity…
What’s tricky is calibrating the level of detail to convey in the actual novels, from sentence to sentence. A few readers have complained that I haven’t given enough back story about the war. That’s a big picture issue. Mary wants to know about firewood; that’s an issue about the details. My goal is to put in enough detail to make the world convincing and vivid, without piling on so much information that the story’s momentum is lost.
I have some ideas about how to handle the firewood question. But you’ll have to buy the book if you really want to know the answer.
Well, really, I think that in the first of the postwar panics, freezing New Englanders stripped as much wood as possible from abandoned houses (luckily, not a lot of adobe around New England!because mud houses maybe don’t burn so well…). Then we got a few really cold winters — blizzards and icebergs falling out of the sky, the usual sort of thing, but without fuel, people began to get cold and sullen (which is nothing likehow New Englanders are, normally), and then BobbyG and DrJ got the brilliant idea of seizing control of Franklin Park and, say, the Arboretum, and established a monopoly on all living wood (a process accompanied, I am sorry to say, by much violence), and then, well, at the time of the book it’s all about BobbyG’s renewable fuel source, where people who cause forest fires are, shockingly, hunted down by large, menacing thugs and placed in the stocks on Boston Common. Did I mention that the New England winters had grown cold? But Walter gets free firewood because Bobby still hopes he’ll agree to become a full-time BobbyG employee. That is my take on this modest matter of literary detail.
As James Thurber said: “My world, and welcome to it.”