If you are writing about the town you live in, your research has taken a life to accumulate. If you built this world, out of historical research or out of your imagination, it is still huge, and the more you research the deeper it gets.
This is good! From this huge supply you can find the perfect details of day-to-day life, as well as the interesting particulars that your plot hinges on.
The trick is showing the reader the surface of the pool and hinting at what lies beneath the surface, without drowning the poor reader in the depths of excess detail.*
World-presentation is necessary in all genres. Many think of this as some peculiarity of science fiction and fantasy invented worlds, which is simply wrong. Regionalists, especially, should know better.
Far too many novels depict Los Angeles as Miami on steroids, minus alligators, or Boston with palm trees, and so on. Having graduated high school in Los Angeles, I can assure you that there are stringent differences, starting with air quality. Don’t try to take up amateur star-gazing in LA. Smog doesn’t vanish at night, and you’re lucky if you can spot the highest-magnitude stars at all. To truly depict LA, you have to find out the essentials of what makes it different from other cities, like this. That’s all world-presentation.
Equally, I frequently find mystery writers deciding to throw a story into Honolulu that would be much better set in Galveston or San Diego. They miss all the essentials of being in Honolulu, starting with the one who had the sunset, as seen from Waikiki, in the mountains to the actual north rather than the red sun sinking into the sea that lies to the west. I cannot believe the woman even took a vacation here, unless she only passed through Honolulu at the airport and spent her week on a neighbor island. Frankly, someone who had never been here but bothered to look at a simple map could have done better. You don’t have to go there if you research cleverly.
Some writers would call this “mere scene description,” but it goes beyond the scenery into characterization and even the plot. The Latino community of LA is primarily Mexican, while that of Miami is Cuban and Puerto Rican: they will have different names, customs, and attitudes. Miami lacks the Hollywood influence, where you run into people in entertainment living all over the LA basin. The structures of organized crime are even different.
So part of poor world-presentation is poor research, and not thinking things through so you know what to research. http://hollyi.net/50books/index50.html You also need to figure what the reader really needs to know, what they will enjoy knowing depending on the length of the story (novels have more room for atmosphere than a short story), and what’s starting to be more than the reader wants. Generally, writers read tons of research that never makes it to print, but is important because it informs their choices of what to include — not to mention giving them scenes and plots.
Brand Names and Non-Descriptions
It can be easy on the writer to just fling some proper names into the paragraph and not bother with the work of actually describing the world. This is a Bad Thing®. Not only does it not give the reader any real information, it highlights the fact that you’re doing it!
Take another mystery set partly on Oahu (hey, this is my island: I can call them out). In supposedly describing a romantic afternoon, she said something on the lines of “We drove through towns called Kailua and Laie,” as if this were supposed to tell you what the place looked and felt like, what the setting was.
Quick: from that “description” what does the place look like?
No, don’t fill in from your own Hawaiian or tropical experience, or watching Hawaii 5-O. That was all the description given. She didn’t even mention if they got as far as the beach or not.
This does not give the atmosphere of driving around the point and stopping at Blowhole or even to look out at Molokai, a dim shadow on the horizon, or through the tidy residential town of Waimanalo. (Were the trees in bloom, gigantic bouquets, plumeria trees soaking the block in perfume? Was it mango season? There’s more than palm trees here.) There is none of the majesty of driving over the Pali (well, through the Pali Tunnel nowadays) and coming out, as it seems, in mid-air at the top of the Pali cliffs overlooking Windward, where there’s always a sea breeze. There’s no mention of the swamp you drive through to Kailua, or the beautiful sweeps of the coast all backed by the green wall of the Pali. Did they even notice Valley of the Temples, the Crouching Lion, Chinaman’s Hat, the Marine base?
Are you there now? I hope I made you see it, smell it, feel it a little. I presented you a glimpse of this world. I didn’t say, in effect, “Oh, I can’t be bothered with you reader people. Here’s some names and go look it up yourselves.”
Poor world-presentation gives that attitude.
Remember, despite Gibson, a brand name is not a description, or even a necessary judgement. I always shake my head over the scene in Live and Let Die where they’re refitting Bond in American gear to pass as a New Englander. Fleming remarks that they give him a Swank tie-clip shaped like a whip. It’s a detail, yes, but it tells me only the visual. He states it like it ought to mean more, tell me what sort of man Bond is supposed to come across as, but I haven’t a clue: vulgar? classy? trendy? conservative? S&M? If he had just said, “They wanted him to seem like a careful dresser of moderate income with a bit of a flashy streak, so they gave him…” and then went into the wardrobe, it would be much better world presentation.
You have to wonder about an author who writes as if the book will evaporate in five or ten years, and never be read by the next fashion generation. Did they really think so little of their work? This isn’t one of the late Bond pot-boilers: this is part of the original story arc that was supposed to end with his death at the end of From Russia with Love.
Across the Barriers
Do not assume every reader knows your codes or shares your taste. One author’s elegant simplicity is someone else’s idea of fashion cowardice or sheer dowdiness, while I can imagine the first writer’s reaction to anything made of three different fabrics and thirty yards of lace. Sometimes you have to lead the reader past their own tastes, as when you assure them the object of desire in your story really is desirable, even though it sounds way too much like their ex. So world presentation needs to be some degree of decoded and slanted to get the reader to come along quietly.
That translates as “use loaded Tell words.” Describe something splendid or glorious, and how much the POV character admires it, if you’re trying to put across an 1870s ballgown. This is one of those places that Tell has to be layered onto Show. A person who spends her life in T-shirt and jeans with occasional knit top and dress slacks, is otherwise going to be repelled by the bustle gown as many-layered and ornate as a Turkish corner because today’s red-carpet designers would never turn out anything like that. (Though, really, that sort of person doesn’t much read historical fiction simply because they don’t like past culture. Histfi fans tend to be romantics who want that kind of pagentry.)
To some extent, yes, the reader should be prepared to enter the world of the characters. If they can only accept people like themselves, with their tastes and attitudes, they may have just picked up the wrong book. You can’t write a book that pleases everyone. But you also need to avoid writing things that idly insult too many people, their beliefs, or their tastes, unless attacking that stance is a central purpose of the story.
Often, in critting at workshops, I have to point out to writers, who are obviously sneering at the Mean Girl’s glittering ornate court gown while lauding the Mary Sue’s elegant simplicity in plain soft blue, that this very phrase, “elegant simplicity,” had to be invented in the 20th century to try to put over simpler clothes in the newly servantless Western World. Before then, and in the rest of the world, except for a little hiccup around 1800, simplicity is never elegant: simplicity is impoverished (and this included the ladies of Classical Greece and Rome, who did not run around in all white but in brilliant and pastel colours with architectural hair styles). So many readers don’t particularly find it plausible, even in your fantasy or even science fiction world that is socially stratified without the kind of transportation technology (from elevators to automobiles) that makes ornate clothing impossible to live in. There’s also my long-winded explanation of how economically necessary ornate clothing is to the upper classes in order to keep their wealth moving down toward the masses instead of stagnating in a miser’s plain purse.
So in world-presentation, you have to tailor it to get people of the here-and-now, including yourself, to enter into the there-and-then, which ought to have different attitudes and tastes. You also have to remember to try to make the prejudices of the here-and-now accessible and comprehensible to the readers not yet born, if your work isn’t programmed to self-destruct in a set time.
*In the Turkey City Lexicon, this is “I’ve done my research and now you’ll suffer for it.”