Gemma Fowler on World Building

This is a superb blog post from author Gemma Fowler on world building, and how notebooks and scribbled notes may not make it into the book but shape the characters, the setting and the story. Fantastically written blog post for a fantastically written book, City of Rust!

When I was thirteen I realised that magic wasn’t real and I was DEVASTATED. Up until then every wardrobe had been a potential doorway, every twig a discarded wand, and I was convinced that it was just a matter of time before some strange creature would interrupt my life and whisk me away on my own magical adventure.

Obviously books were to blame. I was an avid reader, and I loved everything about the stories I read, but it was always the worlds that really stayed with me. I would disappear into these places for days on end, soaking up every detail. Narnia, Lyra’s Oxford, Hogwarts, Middle Earth, The Six Duchies, Discworld, I’ve been a happy tourist in them all, to me those places were as real as the one I went to school in.

It’s no wonder then, that world building is my favourite part of being a writer. But I quickly discovered that creating a world that feels real is not at all easy.

That’s because its not just beautiful descriptions of the places, people and customs we experience in the story that make a world real, if you want to create a place that the reader feels they can step into, you have to concentrate on the bits that don’t make it into the book.

Every small detail in City of Rust has an exploded history scribbled in a notebook, or a map, a mood board, or even a playlist, to go alongside it – the way characters speak and the sayings and references they make, the smell, texture and design of the food they eat, the music they listen too, intricately (and badly) drawn street maps, historical and social events written out like Wikipedia pages, etc. None of this will make it into the story, but it’ll leak into the way the characters speak, and shape every decision they make. If it’s done well, then readers won’t notice it, and that’s the point.

Still, it seems a shame that so much of this detail stays confined to my notebooks, so I’m going to share some of my favourite bits here.

Firstly, the only music formats that are strong enough to survive the rubbish piles in Boxville are old cassette tapes and CDs (all digital formats had been lost long ago, and records were way too fragile). This means this future city almost exclusively listens to music from the eighties and nineties. You can listen to some of the ‘Sounds of Boxville’ here.

In the early evening, as the city wakes up, it smells like vanilla thanks to the hundreds of sweet smelling cactus flowers that cover the balconies of the containerblocks. It is brief though, as soon the dust and rust of the streets is kicked up by the traders feet it goes back to it’s usual rusty smell – which smells a bit like the way blood tastes.

The jackets the drone racers wear are all old biker jackets, (the kind with loads of patches of skulls and roses and busty ladies), as the thick leather would survive over the years. They’re also big enough to hide the drone parts stashed in secret pockets inside them.

Boxville is a city that remakes everything, but some made-to-last machines from the 20th century are still there, like Railey’s favourite old-fashioned vending machines. You can buy anything from sweet sugary pop, to nuts and bolts, from a vending machine in Boxville.

The SteelSheep that graze the metal on the streets of the city aren’t the only bio robotic creatures in Boxville – the desert outside the city is home to a pack of metal-hungry IronWolves, making it a no-go zone for the locals. There’s a rumour that the wolves were designed by Glass City to keep the residents of Boxville contained.

The shipping containers that make up Boxville’s giant containerblocks are still painted with their original branding, so the whole city is covered in huge, rusty logos for things like Hyundai, Hapag-lloyd, and Amazon Prime.

World building can take more time and energy than writing the actual book, but if it means that my readers feel they have walked through the heat of the junk market, or smelt the mildew in the storm drains, or shivered from the breeze that whips between the Heaps on Laurie’s Sphereship, then it’s more than worth it.

CITY OF RUST by Gemma Fowler is out now in paperback (£6.99, Chicken House) Find out more at and follow her on twitter @gemmarfowler

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