Wednesday, August 4, 2010

How Small is Your World?

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Last night I pulled out the telescope to do some stargazing and afterwards I flipped through an astronomy book to look some things up. So what does this have to do with writing a novel? Bear with me; I’m free associating a lot this week. I spotted Andromeda, so I looked up information on galaxies. Turns out our galaxy is over 100,000 light years long, 20,000 deep, with about 100 billion stars in it. Andromeda is even bigger. But this is small potatoes. Our local cluster of galaxies consists of 30 such galaxies, and next to it is a larger strain of over 3,000 galaxies. That’s right, over 3,000 galaxies with an average of 100 billion stars a piece, and this is but a tiny droplet in the vast ocean of the larger known universe. Does your head hurt yet?

Now when we write books we have all of space and time to choose from and we can make the setting of a book anywhere at anytime. This begs the larger question, how big or small a world do you wish to create for the characters in your story? Some novels have sweeping epics that cover the ancient Aegean of the Odyssey or the Russian steppe of War and Peace. Others make a microcosm of the universe in a fixed location, such as James Joyce’s Dubliners or in the poetry of Emily Dickenson. Obviously, both extremes have their advantages and drawbacks, all depending upon what an author wishes to convey to his or her audience.

So what do you think? I say this to both writers and readers of all genres, because I think the scale of a story’s setting truly effects everything in print. Are the settings you prefer ones that involve a vast, intricate system (i.e. Tolkien-esk) or do you favor the smaller microcosm settings in novels where everything boils down to a single city or town or even a single house? Let me know.