This Is My Design: Writing An Alternative Contemporary World

For Devil’s Deal, I used my hometown as the setting. It’s scary to write about something so close. Especially since I still live there and people whom I know will read the book and know what I’m talking about. For those who don’t know me personally or the city I live in, it shouldn’t be a problem. But there’s a fine line when it comes to exposition about an unfamiliar setting.

An Unfamiliar Culture

How many of you are familiar with the Dutch culture? Not that many, I see. There’s so much more to it than cheese and tulips. I see more readers asking for settings which aren’t in the US or UK, which is understandable. But moving away from largely familiar places means writers have to introduce new cultures, communities, and laws. How do you include all that without it becoming boring?

Introduce a character who’s unfamiliar to the culture. They will have a good reason to stare and wonder, ask questions about the status quo, and how this habit came to be. It’s the best way to become familiar with a setting through actions. It still needs to feel natural and not a sum up of all the things you have to know. Introduce things as you go.

My main character, Nora, has been living in this city her whole life, so having her ask questions about why every student rides their bike is silly. I used anomalies to talk about habits. I forced into situations that are different and get her to react to it. People will either get annoyed or positively embrace the change, but some things are deeply rooted into a culture. It’s often hard to explain why something is as it is for someone who lives there.

That’s where a beta reader can help you out. Ask someone you trust who doesn’t live in the same country to read your story. They’ll find the confusing habits or cultural bits. It’s also possible to over-explain. Readers are smarter than most writers think. Without someone else to point that out, we’d be hopeless.

What’s Real And What Isn’t

So how do you decided which locations to put into the book and what not? I decided to keep people’s privacy and not include specific locations of houses. Public areas, buildings that will stick around, and companies that probably won’t go soon are in there. They won’t tear down the theater anytime soon, and there’s only one place that’s fit to be a cinema. I’m sure the library will be at the same place for many years to come. Definitely worth checking out.

One of the wonders of post-war construction is that the majority of the houses are terrace houses which all look alike. Dutch houses definitely have a standard layout for most of the cheaper real estate. That means I don’t have to think about the houses of the people I know. I know where they are on the map, but it could be any of the houses in the area. Another thing I like to do is explore the real estate websites.

I don’t think it’s necessary for the reader to know exactly where each location is, but my husband recognises most of it (he’s reading the book right now). It’s a nice easter egg for those who have been here or want to come here in the future. We’ll see. Maybe my beta readers will think differently.

The Shadow World

Maybe ‘shadow world’ isn’t the right word for it, but I will use it, anyway. Devil’s Deal is an urban fantasy story where immortals and supernatural beings life in the same world as humans. Except the humans don’t know. This ‘shadow world’ is only visible if you’re willing to step out of what the light shows you.

The world you write about only changes when you write from a point of view of someone who’s initiated into the shadow world. And even then it’s hard to see since it wants to blind in with the regular world. There’s a reason why it’s hidden. Who knows, maybe Diagon Alley does exist.

Think of the rules of the shadow world and how a character will notice the difference. Does your character need an object to be able to see the shadow world? Or is knowing about it enough? These are basic world building questions, but it’s the perspective that you need to remember.

Would you rather have a contemporary book with details about locations, shop names, and pop culture references, or keep it a little vague so you can let your imagination run wild?

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