The Hometown That Never Was: World Building

There is a town somewhere along the coast of Massachusetts that was founded by witches in 1658. Today its population includes the largest percentage of people with extrasensory abilities in the United States.

That place is my imagination.

But I’ve named that segment of my imagination Whitfield, and I’ve based three novels and two novellas there which, on paper at least, makes the place real. It isn’t, of course; the “real” Whitfield exists only in my mind. But its reflection—all those pages filled with words—enable Whitfield to be seen and explored by anyone who cares to read the books.

It is that construction of words that can achieve the impossible. A town peopled by witches exists because we writers make that possible. How? Through history, characters, and a special vocabulary, we can amass enough details to explore a colony on Saturn, reincarnate King Arthur, make animals speak . . . With these three tools, we can bring the ideas in our imaginations to life.

History
Very few stories take place in a vacuum. If you set your action in Anywhere, USA thinking that the location has no bearing on your story, you’ll end up with something like a painting of figures against a bare canvas. The background—even if that’s all your location is—tells its own story. In Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, for example, Macon, Georgia, with its oppressive heat and the longstanding narrow-minded attitude of its citizens, creates the powder keg that explodes in the book’s climax. A novel’s setting becomes even more important in cases in which the entire world must be restructured to fit the realities of the story.

World building is most often used in Science Fiction or futuristic novels in which dwellings, transportation, clothing, and even language depart from current reality, but it is also necessary, if less graphic, in fiction about seemingly ordinary places that nevertheless possess extraordinary characteristics. To create a town populated by witches, I had to create its origins.

My premise is that Whitfield, Mass., was founded by 27 families from the British Isles who traveled together to the New World to escape persecution. In this universe, the 27 families have remained in Whitfield, allowing other, non-magical people (cowen, in my lexicon) to move into the town’s periphery, but never selling their homes in what I call “Old Town” to anyone except other descendants of those founding families, and never revealing their particular talents to outsiders.
The witches in Whitfield live by the ancient Witches’ Rede, which is: To know, to act, to dare, to keep silent. By filling my town with secretive, close-mouthed personalities, I maintain its singularity.

Character
Naturally, when a writer creates a place so different from reality, the characters will exhibit their own eccentricities, even if they behave quite normally most of the time. In Whitfield, the residents seem quite ordinary at first glance. It is only as the stories progress that we learn that my main character, Katy Ainsworth, is a telekinetic, or that her 86-year-old great-grandmother is a healer whose touch dispels sickness and injury, her Aunt Agnes is a professor at Stanford University in California and commutes to work by teleporting; that the assistant headmistress at her school is a djinn who can plant thoughts into the minds of others, and her boyfriend’s eleven-year-old brother can raise the dead.

Finally, I invented a “character” I call the Darkness to add an ongoing touch of menace to each of the Whitfield stories. The Darkness is what keeps Whitfield from being a Utopia. It is the fly in the ointment, the elephant in the room, the evil entity that lurks forever just out of earshot, but is always present.

Vocabulary
In every imaginary world that deviates significantly from reality, there will be a specific vocabulary for the characters and situations in that world. In the Harry Potter books, muggles was the author’s made-up word for non-magical people. I chose to use a real term, cowen, used from time immemorial by avowed Wiccans to indicate “other”.

As with foreign words, the unique vocabulary of your world must be explained within the context of your narrative. For example, the word “witch”: In other works of fiction, it has come to mean anything from an evil woman who curses using Latinate phrases to a supernatural being who flies through the air on a broom. In my purview, though, I mean something quite different. “Witch,” in Whitfield, is a word used by the extraordinary residents themselves only to distinguish themselves from cowen, and carries no haunted-house overtones. So Katy’s ability to move objects with her mind, which would be regarded as freakish anywhere else, is nothing remarkable in Whitfield.

With the otherworldly aspects of the town established, I’m free, then, to take Katy on adventures that I hope are accepted as utterly believable. So far, she’s come to Whitfield, discovered her roots there, fallen in love with the handsome and loyal—although often clueless—Peter Shaw, encountered the Darkness several times, opened a portal to another plane of existence, and, in the third novel to be released later this year, goes to Paris, where she gets to know a whole different variety of witch from the homey residents of Whitfield.

In the novella Wishes, she comes upon a snarky fairy who grants every wish Katy makes, with disastrous consequences, all of it totally in keeping with the funny/creepy vibe I’ve tried to infuse in all the works in this series by making Whitfield as believable as everybody’s own hometown.

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