Post written by guest writer Sarita Day.
Have you ever longed to visit a place you’ve never been? There is a Welsh word for that feeling: hiraeth. It means a mixture of things, such as feeling nostalgia or homesickness.
I have felt that for fictional worlds. Have you? I’m embarrassed to admit that I got way too excited when J.K. Rowling announced there were many more wizarding schools in the world than just Hogwarts. For a second, I didn’t think that this announcement was an interesting add-on to the Harry Potter series, but instead I imagined those other schools as if they were truly out there. Then reality came crashing back down. At that moment, I felt a twinge of disappointment. My everyday life lost a bit of magic.
As an author, that’s how I want my readers to feel about the worlds I create. I want them to yearn for these places I’ve dreamt up. When they put the book down, I want them to imagine vacationing on my fictional beaches or dining in my fictional palaces. Writing something that has that big of an impact on someone makes me feel like I'm doing something special with my life.
I love creating worlds. Worlds I want to visit. Worlds my readers will want a stamp from in their fictional passport. Writing is more than characters or words on a page. I want readers to feel like they found a new home and then hate me for making them want to visit a place they'll never be able to.
“There’s always room for a story that can transport people to another place.” – J.K. Rowling
Writers often talk about the importance of creating compelling characters. I feel like the world the characters live in is another character in its own right. You can have amazing characters with feelings and motives, but if they’re on a dull backdrop, nothing they do will be enough. How boring would it be to see Frodo take the Ring to a blacksmith for disposal? How dreary would it be for Jack Sparrow to sail a dinghy in a pond? Without the fires of Mount Doom or the Black Pearl sailing to the Isla de Muerta, those stories wouldn’t be the same.
Some writers may read this blog post and think I’m talking about world-building. While that has a lot to do with it, I believe creating a place readers will long for takes more effort. Writers get caught up in the technical aspects of world-building. They set up a government, culture, religion, etcetera. All those things will help draw your reader in, but what if you took it a step further? Writers need to remember the emotions places give.
When you travel, what do you feel? As soon as your feet touch a new city or country, what emotions hit you? While exploring, what memories are you making? Will you remember the government or the weather? I, for one, remember experiences. One of my favorite vacations was in 2019. I took a cruise with my family, one of the stops being Jamaica. My daughter met a little girl while touring an old house and they became instant friends. The two of them walked together, holding hands in the historic home. All they needed were old dresses and I could have written a story inspired by them right then and there. That’s how I want readers to feel. I want to create worlds that will bring out their wanderlust.
In my own novels, I challenge myself by not writing dialogue for a page or two. Instead, I focus on the five senses. Adding sight, smell, taste, touch, and sound changes the reader’s perception of the world. On top of that, my character takes time to reflect on what happened in a previous scene. That way my protagonist—and through them, my reader—truly experiences where they are on both the setting and emotional levels.
In my upcoming novel, releasing in 2022, my protagonist lives in Chicago in 2017. There isn’t much to add to a real city based in modern times. However, he enters another, fictional, world during the story, and that’s where I let my imagination run wild. This other world is something I created from scratch. It’s new, sensational, and horrifying. I’m so curious to hear what my readers think of it after they visit. Will they want to go back, or will they check over their shoulders? Or both?
When I revisit my worlds, many times I add new details. Imagine placing your character outside a long, dark tunnel. That alone will put a reader on edge. Now add a simple lightbulb in the center, swinging back and forth, beckoning the character to enter. The bulb doesn’t cast enough light to illuminate the space, so the character (and reader) is left wondering what awaits them. Suddenly, that dark tunnel became a character all its own. That small change of adding the swinging light bulb will do wonders for a reader's emotions.
Tap into your memories. Remember to treat your worlds as if they are characters. Take your world-building an inch further. I hope, with these tips, your readers feel hiraeth.
Sarita Day is an indie author of YA/NA fiction. Her imagination covers an array of genres, including steampunk, YA/NA contemporary, and alternate world fantasy. She writes stories full of adventure, bravery, and love. Her biggest supporters are her husband, daughter, and son. You can find and follow her on Instagram at @saritathewriter.
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