World Builders

Authors are world builders. We use a gift not many people possess to spin fictional tales about people who live in our heads. Some find that creating characters can be difficult, others concentrate on their characteristics, while many can reach out into the air and pull entire towns and places together without effort.

I find that my fully developed characters walk on stage when I need them. They take over, dropping bits and pieces of their backstories as the story develops and I watch them come alive as my fingers fly over the keys. I’m lucky that way.

Writers sometimes say they have issues creating characters, but I’ve never heard a writer say they have problems with locations. I know several who write about the cities or towns where they lived or grew up. They use existing locations, because they know them. If it’s a historical novel, they might spend considerable time researching a certain setting through whatever means works for them.

As I’ve written before, sometimes you have to actually visit a location during the research process, and there are authors who travel the world to better understand the environment, and the people who live there.

I use real settings in Northeast Texas, West Texas, East Texas and the Panhandle, and more recently Eastern Oklahoma and Hot Springs, Arkansas, but I handle those places differently in print. I change the names of those communities and towns.

But why, if they’re real places? You can use Google maps to find streets, highways, and even buildings. Keep it simple, stupid, and use what’s there.

There’s a reason for that. There are readers who delight in pointing out errors in a novel and I think they receive great satisfaction in writing to stay…

“I enjoyed your book, but 1st Street NW in Paris, Texas, is one way. You wrote that it’s a two way, and sir, that’s wrong!”


“There’s aren’t any houses at the corner of West Lincoln and Highland Street in Marfa, Texas. They start halfway down the block. You should visit the places you write about.”

I get the occasional email pointing out elusive typos, or in their opinion, cars didn’t have push button shifters in the 1940s. Well, yes they did, I know, because I drove a 1948 DeSoto for a year in high school and it had Fluid-drive in addition to manual shifting.

NOTE: A 1948 DeSoto was not the car that impressed girls in 1970. Come to think of it, the four-door 1959 Galaxie 500 I drove for the next three years wasn’t either.

To alleviate those issues with reality, I simply change the name of existing towns and mold them into what I want, or need. In my Red River series, Paris, Texas, became Chisum. That name came from John Chisum, a central player in the New Mexico Lincoln County War (which made famous Billy the Kid and his Regulators). He’s buried in Paris and it seemed fitting.

I partially grew up in the community of Chicota, and changed it back to the original name of Center Springs. I also merged two towns in the Big Bend Region of the Lone Star state. Alpine and Marfa became Ballard (named after my college roommate), and I’ve created other towns from whole cloth.

Now I can run my streets any way I want. If I need the courthouse to be six stories high, I can do it, and no one has any reason to call me on it. This idea works for me in other ways, too. I was looking at Google maps one day and noticed the Red River twisted out of its banks several years ago. A sliver of Oklahoma wound up on the Texas side.

But it still belongs to Oklahoma and there was considerable litigation about that issue. That orphan piece of land is north of a rancher’s property, and there still aren’t any official roads in and out of there, other than the cattleman’s two tracks made by his own truck.

It was thin I began to wonder…what if?

What if there no one claimed the fallow land?

What if bad buys decided to “homestead” it, pay the Texas landowner for a two-track right of way and build a honky tonk?

What if they sold drugs and had gambling in addition to selling beer and liquor?

What if someone was murdered in this no man’s land?

In Laying Bones, (Book 8 in the Red River series), I addressed all those questions and more, built a fictional honky tonk world on that sliver of land, and explored what could happen.

The plot came from an offhand mention during a funeral about five years ago. Back in 1964, a distant cousin, R.B. Armstrong got drunk in an Oklahoma club one night, drove back across the river into Texas and overturned his car into Sanders Creek and drowned in only a few inches of water. He was my Old Man’s running buddy, and Dad wondered about R.B.’s death until the day he died in 2010.

I was talking to my first cousin, Roger, at the aforementioned funeral and we got to talking about the Old Man, R.B., and the rest of those old men who were part of the Greatest Generation. I told Roger Dad brought up R.B.’s drowning only he died, saying it sure was a shame.

Roger gave me a strange look and shook his head. His daddy was a Lamar County deputy sheriff at that time and Roger knew more than I did. “Rev, R.B. didn’t drown that night. He didn’t have any water in his lungs. He was murdered and they suspect a couple of guys drove him out there and pushed the car off into the creek. That story you know was made up to save the family more grief than they could handle at the time.”

I was stunned. What if that were true?

Our discussion bubbled along in my subconscious until I found that spit of land on Google Maps a few months later. Click. The light bulb went on and I had a novel because we’re world builders.

Use that wonderful imagination of yours, explore alternatives, and no one can call you out on it.

Oh, by the way, 1st Street NW in Chisum is a two way, in my world.



This entry was posted in Writing by Reavis Wortham. Bookmark the permalink.

About Reavis Wortham

Two time Spur Award winning author Reavis Z. Wortham pens the Texas Red River historical mystery series, and the high-octane Sonny Hawke contemporary western thrillers. His new Tucker Snow series begins in 2022. The Red River books are set in rural Northeast Texas in the 1960s. Kirkus Reviews listed his first novel in a Starred Review, The Rock Hole, as one of the “Top 12 Mysteries of 2011.” His Sonny Hawke series from Kensington Publishing features Texas Ranger Sonny Hawke and debuted in 2018 with Hawke’s Prey. Hawke’s War, the second in this series won the Spur Award from the Western Writers Association of America as the Best Mass Market Paperback of 2019. He also garnered a second Spur for Hawke’s Target in 2020. A frequent speaker at literary events across the country. Reavis also teaches seminars on mystery and thriller writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to writing conventions, to the Pat Conroy Literary Center in Beaufort, SC. He frequently speaks to smaller groups, encouraging future authors, and offers dozens of tips for them to avoid the writing pitfalls and hazards he has survived. His most popular talk is entitled, My Road to Publication, and Other Great Disasters. He has been a newspaper columnist and magazine writer since 1988, penning over 2,000 columns and articles, and has been the Humor Editor for Texas Fish and Game Magazine for the past 25 years. He and his wife, Shana, live in Northeast Texas. All his works are available at your favorite online bookstore or outlet, in all formats. Check out his website at “Burrows, Wortham’s outstanding sequel to The Rock Hole combines the gonzo sensibility of Joe R. Lansdale and the elegiac mood of To Kill a Mockingbird to strike just the right balance between childhood innocence and adult horror.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review) “The cinematic characters have substance and a pulse. They walk off the page and talk Texas.” —The Dallas Morning News On his most recent Red River novel, Laying Bones: “Captivating. Wortham adroitly balances richly nuanced human drama with two-fisted action, and displays a knack for the striking phrase (‘R.B. was the best drunk driver in the county, and I don’t believe he run off in here on his own’). This entry is sure to win the author new fans.” —Publishers Weekly “Well-drawn characters and clever blending of light and dark kept this reader thinking of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.” —Mystery Scene Magazine

28 thoughts on “World Builders

  1. I am so sorry about your cousin. Funerals are a great place to find out what was really what.

    The good thing about us moving every couple of years is that I have a lot of locations to draw on. I often use my favorite old houses. If I can’t live in them really, at least my characters can.

    • Thanks, Cynthia!

      Roger was a great guy, but I know he’s still with me. When I do something dumb, I can hear him laughing….

      I seem to find something to draw on every time I visit a place. That’s the fun of traveling, and living in different places.

  2. Thank you, Sir, for your insights and advice… reaffirming what I have done a couple of times – my two “favorites” being:
    – a county seat on the Florida Gulf Coast between Sopchoppy and Steinhatchee named Manatee Springs
    – an antebellum town in west-central Georgia based in large part on what happened to the town of New Manchester – as well as other mill towns around the Battle of Atlanta – and while I’d lived in the area for most of my “adult” life, I learned about it on an outing with my boys one afternoon a dozen or so years ago when we stumbled into a history tour led by professors from West Georgia College (now UWG)…

    In the same way, historical naming conventions make it easy to create roads and such out of the whole cloth – If you know the beginning or end points of a highway or bridge crossing there’s the opportunity to create a community along some point of the road – Hutcheson Ferry Road near me led to my using a small settlement on the ‘Hootch, though none existed beyond the Hutcheson’s home many years ago…

  3. Thanks, Rev. If anyone calls you on that one-way vs. two-way street, look them in the eye and tell them that the work in question is partially science-fiction and set in an alternate universe.

    Hope you have a great weekend!

  4. I had someone tell me she loved my Mapleton Mystery series, then added, “except there are no towns at 6000 feet on that side of Denver. I smiled, looked her in the eye, and said, “There is now. It’s called Mapleton.”
    My normal disclaimer is, “This is fiction. I get to make stuff up.”
    And you’ve reminded me to open Google Earth to see how my protagonist could run from an unknown estate in Croatia to Old Town if he’s supposed to be 15 kilometers away.
    “This is fiction. I get to make stuff up.”

    • We DO get to make stuff up, and if you want a town at 6,000 feet, then do it.

      On the other hand, and I wonder at myself about this, a well-known author friend of mine wrote about contemporary Texas and wrote a Comanche reservation in our state. The only problem is, Comanches never lived on a reservation (though some of Oklahoma was designated for them at one time). Wonder why that bothers me.

  5. Great post, Rev. I like how you think. Before I started on my current teen fantasy series, I was working on a wounded warrior thriller series. I enjoyed picking locations for their potential (groups who lived there, geography, natural resources, history, etc.). I would visit to get the feel for the place, then change the names of people, towns, and roads.

    I visited a community in northern Ohio where strip mining had left a landscape perfect for hiding and conflict. A local gal involved in reclaiming the land damaged by the strip mining made connections for me to talk to a strip-mining expert. Apparently a shady businessman had used the terrain to create a multisite landfill and was currently running a trash-collection monopoly in surrounding communities. He also had some strange beliefs on creating the perfect race. When we came out of the meeting with the strip-mining expert, the young lady stopped me and said, “Please don’t use the name of Mr. Tycoon in your book.” When I get back to that book, I’ll have to change Mr. T’s name.

    I hope you have a well disguised and enjoyable weekend.

    • I draw from everyone I meet, and many characteristics of my fictional population come from other people’s quirks. I tend to watch and listen, and file those traits away.

      Thanks, Steve, for weighing in.

  6. World building is near and dear to my writer’s heart, Rev, and you did it justice here.

    I liked making up fictional locations for my urban fantasy novels, set in an alternate history version of our present. With my library mystery series, I’ve created a fictional neighborhood in southwest Portland, based on elements of real southwest neighborhoods that I know and worked in. I think building your own locale is so freeing that it’s very hard to resist. I’m not resisting 🙂

    Thanks for another fun and informative read. Have a wonderful weekend!

    • I had a helluva time writing an as-yet unpublished humorous horror western and creating an alternate world that never existed, but is based on reality and real events and locations. I doubt anyone can call me on my history, but if they do, bring it on!

      Thanks for the compliment, Dale.

  7. Great post, Rev. In my Grafton County Series I use real streets for the locals, but fudge the house numbers so I don’t get sued. Google Earth is a writer’s best friend in that regard. I set my Mayhem Series in Revere, MA. Not the Revere of today, though. It’s set in the Revere I remember when I lived there. Most readers appreciate returning to the Revere of yesteryear. I’ve only had one who sent me a nasty letter, all upset about a fictional diner. Since he mentioned he was a RPD patrol officer, I calmed him down with a quick lesson about fact vs. fiction. And he went on to read the whole series without another angry word. 🙂

    Never fails to amaze me how “some” people let the tiniest things (like a fictional diner) eat at them. Grisham has the right idea. He includes a note in his books that says something like, I don’t like to spend much time researching, so please resist the urge to point out errors.

    • I was THAT person, but with a light humorous tone, in a conversation with Jim Butcher who writes “The Dresden Files” about the use of a historical saddle on a T-Rex. (Yes, really.). He knew the saddle wouldn’t work, but he needed Harry on that T-Rex. I suggested a Velcro spell on Harry’s rear end the next time this kind of thing happened.

      To protect my own rear from fact Nazis and to teach a bit of history, I always included an author’s note at the end of any book where I took liberties with historical elements. Two of my favorites.

      Thomas Holley Chivers–poet, psychic, and Poe’s nemesis and friend–really existed. The only divergence from his history I made was his friendship and correspondence with Frederick Upton Brown who is fictitious. The poem “Astralian” doesn’t exist either.

      That second trunk of his letters that Fitzhugh found is still lost, and no one really knows why Chivers and Poe changed from friends to opponents, and why their poetry mimics each other’s so strongly.

      Valera and its inhabitants are fictional, but I created this country from historical fact. In the years following the War Between the States, over three million Southerners immigrated to escape Yankee rule, poverty, terrible memories, or punishment for war crimes.

      Emperor Dom Pedro of Brazil actively sought these immigrants with offers of free land. Up to twenty thousand Southerners accepted and settled in the Amazon area of south Brazil. They became known as “Os Confederados” and their largest town soon carried the ironic name of Americana.

      Today in Brazil, you can find people who look Scotch-Irish but speak Portuguese, and Latins who speak with a drawl. The Confederate Battle Flag is flown with the Brazilian flag during special gatherings where gray-uniformed Rebels dance the Virginia reel with hoop-skirted ladies.

    • Like reviews from readers, I tend to let those with issues roll off my back. Life’s too short to obsess on those types of things.

      Have a great weekend, Sue!

  8. Excellent, as always, Rev.

    Google Maps work all right for factual detail–except when construction reroutes entire interstates!

    Setting used to be the element I skipped over, both as a reader and a writer, until I heard Kevin J. Anderson talk on world-building at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference. Kevin is famous for his sci-fi set in *imaginary* worlds.

    However, in this talk, he spoke about his real hometown, the Sauerkraut Capital of the World. I can’t recall the state or city but I vividly remember his descriptions of smelly fermented overflow from the sauerkraut factory that filled ditches and ponds around town. In summer, the stench was gagging. In winter, the ponds froze and kids skated on them, fervently hoping the ice didn’t break b/c no one wanted to drown in a slurry of vinegar and fermented cabbage juice.

    Kevin’s mother was crowned “Miss Sauerkraut of 1957”. Talk about bragging rights 😉

    I left Kevin’s session with a whole different understanding and appreciation for the importance of setting. The direction streets run is less important than making a memorable sensory impression on the reader.

    • Sauerkraut is full of a ridiculous amount of salt, too. Those spills were a biohazard of the first order. One of the things I enjoy about THE DEAD FILES is the historical information that’s part of the show. It’s amazing that more than one town had an historical flood that destroyed home and people, and it wasn’t water in the water tower, it was molasses. A sticky and ugly way to die.

    • For those struggling writers, or for us who are already published, one of the best lessons in establishing scenes comes from James Lee Burke. He’s a master at that.

      Thanks for weighing in, Debbie!

  9. My hometown of High Point became Moravia, the EERIE, INDIANA of North Carolina, where weird crap happened. I set all my paranormal novels there. I kept an index of name changes in my book bible so I’d remember that Greensboro was now Nathanton, etc. Using High Point, I didn’t have to think how long the drive would take from Daniel’s warehouse where he stored his magic collection to his home. But I could disguise my alma mater enough that no one could say one of my nastier professors was the model for a bad guy.

    If you’ve never watched EERIE, INDIANA, I highly recommend it. It’s THE TWILIGHT ZONE for older kids, but it’s so dang clever grown ups would like it, too. One of my favorite episodes was about an Old West bandit who never had a successful robbery and died in a remarkably stupid attempt at robbing the local bank. His name was an historical mockery so he remained a ghost. The hero kids gave him a note for a teller which was really an application for an account, and the teller gave him a free toaster. He finally passed over thinking he’d stolen something.

  10. How interesting (and sad) about your cousin.

    In my WIP, a Western Gothic, I changed Carbon to Dusty Bend but kept Rising Star as is because no big scenes take place down there. I was inspired by the recent Eastern Complex fire, and yes, a wildfire figures prominently in the story.

    • Is that Rising Star, Texas?

      I did the same thing, of sorts, in my most recent novel, The Texas Job. I change some Texas towns, but kept Hot Springs mostly as it was, except the Arlington Hotel got a new name, just to ward off comments about accuracy.

      For example, in my hotel, all the rooms on each side of the hall are connected by doors. That’s common to find between two rooms, but I needed something different.

      Thanks for writing.

  11. Good post, Rev (Q: May I call you that even though we’ve never met?)

    Yeah, for historical fiction, you’ve got to get the basics of the world right. Even if it was 400+ years ago. Old journals and maps help. Going there, too, but only for “atmospherics” when it’s been so long.

    For my debut about the birth of NYC in 1609, my disclaimer reads: “This is a work of historical fiction. Apart from actual (real) people, events, and locations included in the narrative, all other characters, dialogue, events, and locations are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. …”

    No one’s sued me yet.

    • Of course you can call me Rev. Honored to have you as a friend.

      Don’t you love old maps and journals!? I’d have the walls covered in maps if we didn’t live in a fairly open concept house. Can’t wait to read your debut!

  12. This is a nice touch, RW.

    I recollect someone here mentioned this one time in the context of the authenticity of the story and that a writer they’d met alleged to write about Texas but seemed not to know much about the regionalisms of that place.

    I’ve been working on some rural noir short stories and it occurred to me that these could all take place in and around one particular small town I know of in Iowa-population 352, and that it was an important peg to hang the story onto, kind of like a dress form.

    The terroir, as the foodies call it, forms an important part of how the story hangs together.

  13. Thanks, Robert.

    I’m glad you enjoyed the post and found some value in my observations. Even though we make stuff up, here in Texas for example, we have to adhere to certain points of accuracy. One writer I know wrote about the colorful maples growing on the ridges of the Texas Hill country. Fine, we can change some things, but other than a tiny, and I mean tiny, corner of the state called Lost Maples state park, there are no ridges full of maple trees.

    Sometimes its a narrow edge to walk, but when the words ring true, we’ve hit a home run.

Comments are closed.