What would Lord of the Rings be without Mordor or the Shire? Harry Potter without Hogwarts? Wall Street without NYC? The Originals without New Orleans? Friday Night Lights without Texas? Ocean’s Eleven without Vegas?
Point is, these settings are iconic. In some cases, even more so than the characters that traverse them.
There are hundreds of world-building questionnaires online, but the absolute best thing you can do to learn how to create unique and iconic settings is travel. (Me, recommending traveling? Shocking!)
And although travel unfortunately doesn’t allow you to actually live at Hogwarts (though you can try your best in Orlando!), it does let you experience some of the most extraordinary places the real world has to offer.
Dedicated research can tell you a lot about a city, but culture begs to be felt and experienced. Google Maps can show you the street view of a location, Yelp can show you the menus of the city’s best restaurant, and Instagram can show you the pictures the locals take. But that’s all they can do: show. TV, books, and the internet can’t help you taste the food, can’t let you smell the air, touch the water or the grass, or talk with the people. They don’t allow you to form your own opinions or make your own judgments through experience.
So, then, what shapes culture? Food, music, weather, religious and political views, racial and sexual diversity, history, architecture, language and dialect, customs, wealth disparity, fashion, urban vs. rural, work and industry, leisure and entertainment, sports, arts, lifestyle. On and on and on it can go.
But you don’t have to travel far and away. Just the next state over, the next city, the next town, down the road. If none of that works, look at where you live. Pretend it’s your first time ever seeing the architecture and the landscape. The first time you tried a local restaurant or coffee shop. The language spoken and their accents. Is it busy or quiet, quaint or hustling? Do the people smile, are they in a hurry, do they keep their heads down? What would you tell someone visiting for the first time, in order to truly experience where you live? What makes your home special? What do you see, smell, hear, taste, and feel? What’s something you’d have to live there to know, that a day-trip alone can’t explain?
It’s easy to become blind to the places we live, to take for granted its specialness, its beauty (and, sometimes, its ugliness). Travel allows us to escape this pitfall. To write unbiased and honestly and to create.
Mark Twain once said there were only four unique cities in the U.S.: Boston, New Orleans, San Antonio, and San Francisco. While I think travel anywhere positively influences writing, and while some may debate Twain’s four cities, there’s a reason some places are more iconic than others. (Re: Hogwarts. Also, please, send me my letter, JKR, I don’t mind that it’s fourteen years late.)
While part of world-building focuses on realism, creating a city just like your own doesn’t necessarily make it iconic.
Here, too, travel helps.
It helps you distinguish between ordinary and extraordinary. Between the things worth noticing and the items worth stopping for. To quote Mark Hertsgaard: “Travel is like knowledge. The more you see, the more you know you haven’t seen.”
And that allows imaginations to run wild.
So go forth and travel and explore, and create worlds all your own.