As of yesterday, you might remember, the note-making process for A Body Up the Well is done. Over the past twenty-six days, quite a bit of what I’ve posted has, hopefully, made sense from a development standpoint; been the kinds of things that you’d assume are done in the planning stages of a book. The rest of it—especially the bits that I admitted that I probably wasn’t going to use at all—well, maybe not so much.
I was asked the other day if I don’t run the risk of overdeveloping my world with all of this stuff. And, you know, that’s a fair question. It’s entirely possible. So why did I write all of this stuff down? Why did I put it into my head and then out into the world? And why would I risk overdoing it when overdoing it might mean the difference between being able to write the book well, or just completely sucking all over the place?
Well, to be honest, it’s kind of my thing. I overdo it. The important thing for me, though, is to overdo it in the right way.
In the case of this novel, I’ve been focusing myself really sharply on the idea of building a concrete and complete setting that I can acquaint myself with. The reason for this—like almost everything so far on this website—goes back to Raymond Chandler. Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe novels are my gold standard for American fiction in a lot of ways. They define a genre and a style, and (and this is the bit that’s important to this article) they are utterly and completely informed by their setting.
The Chandler novels, despite their continued accessibility, are wholly linked to the Los Angeles County of their era. There is no disguising their time or place, and—after a fashion—the city eventually comes to represent a persistent and fully developed character in the series. This is something to be strived for, I think; especially in science fiction where the rub so often comes in some whole in the fabric of the world that the writer has failed to consider and build upon.
So, it is for the sake of building a world that is persistent and complete that I overdevelop. Even if I never use a third of the details and history that I came up with (and with a lot of the technical details, I probably won’t use them), I feel that I’m better off having them available to me than not. Knowing how things work and how they came to be helps me to define and describe in ways that seem organic and natural. If, for example, I know going into writing that the Indian head of state is a household name who just had a messy and public affair, and is on the verge of being removed form office, I have something that’s automatically ready to be dropped into play as a piece of small-talk between characters or serve as something that’s weighing on the mind of a UN Undersecretary. Or, if I have developed the function, use, and market saturation of a particular piece of technology, I can better create descriptions for the reader and avoid scenes that are the equivalent of modern characters telling one-another how to work a cell phone.
Now, from those two examples, a lot of this stuff could pretty obviously be made up on the fly. The reason why I don’t, though, comes back to Chandler again: The man wrote about Los Angeles and his time period so very well because he knew those things going into the writing. Just in the way that a writer producing contemporary fiction should know his time and the town or city where it is set (or a good equivalent if the town or city is fictional). Knowing about all of this stuff—having it available to me—ahead of time let’s me drive forward; writing smoothly and without interruption for further development or consideration. Some things may be added or changed in subsequent drafts, but, for me, the most important thing in a first draft is getting it done.
And overdeveloping just lets me do that better.