Making the strange familiar and the familiar strange.Novalis
Applied to poetry, surrealism, cultural anthropology, and many other arts and sciences, this quote encapsulates a writer’s aim in worldbuilding. If your characters eat, how do you make something like bread or coffee new and wonderful? If you’re writing about people and places that never existed, how do you make the audience yearn for the comforts of that alien home alongside the protagonist? The key to this puzzle? Nostalgia.
Reexamine How and What You Describe
Troll through your fondest memories and look at the highlight reel – that’s all our memories really are, anyway. Can you remember what you had for lunch exactly three years and two days ago? No? Bet you can remember your least favorite cafeteria food, the sticky spot on the floor the janitor could never seem to clean, and the way one server always breathed so heavily he fogged the sneeze guard (on your side of the line).
Dig deep into your senses’ memory. What moved, smelled, grated, and clattered around you? How did you interact with those stimuli? If you’re struggling to describe a place, think of the first thing you’d describe. If your character only sees it (doesn’t touch, smell, hear, taste), then chuck it out and pick something else.
One of the easiest mistakes to make, especially as you describe an original world, is to over-share. You want the reader to see all the minute details you’ve poured your heart and soul into, want them to walk your green fields and marvel at the titanic ruins cresting the snowy mountain ridge.
The trick is to pick words that play to a certain mood. Don’t just describe. Feel.
Nostalgia is a free-flowing collection of open memories, highlighted by bright spots of intrigue, humor, and longing. It’s shaped as much by where you are now as where you were when the memory was made. You miss your mother’s cooking when you’re eating room temp ramen over a desk in your dorm. Trees and creeks from childhood roving come to the mind’s eye when there’s nothing but asphalt and strip malls as far as the eye can see.
In those moments, you feel as much as you remember. Your POV character should provide readers with as much feeling as fact. If your descriptions repeatedly fall flat, stop and ask who is describing that place or event, and how the narrator feels about it. Readers will catch their mood.
Make History Apparent
We’ve all read that one fantasy novel that rambles on for paragraphs on end about the last war and why the reader ought to care about it. We universally, as readers, don’t care. Why? The war may be an interesting plot point. It may reveal important things about the characters. But if it’s presented with all the factual enthusiasm as a high school history report, it will garner as much enthusiasm from readers as that essay.
Nostalgia is attached to items, and usually those items tell a lot of that story on their own. Mentioning the moss creeping over old pockmarks left by canon in the city walls and the aged beggars with missing limbs gives a sense of time and damage without reporting how many years ago the war raged. If the wall hasn’t been repaired, it suggests the city was on the losing side. You provide facts, but they’re hidden in objects.
To make readers feel at home in a place they’ve never been, you have to feel at home there, too. Once you understand how nostalgia works, it’s easier to sneak information into the story without halting the narrative. Question knee-jerk descriptions, bring out the mood, and let the world tell its own story.