Worldbuilding for Retro Magic Realism: Part 1 — The Real World
While kicking around setting ideas for my new magic realism book, The Electric Girl, I realized pretty quickly I would be jointly creating two spaces. Firstly, a version of the world as I knew it (and I decided to indulge once more in my home region, BC’s Okanagan) in the late 1980s. Secondly, I would need brief glimpses at alternate dimensions. But since this is Part 1, let’s start with The Real World.
Can You Ever Go Home Again?
I sometimes wonder if the primary reason I write fiction is to find excuses to go home more often than I really can. And these days? Well, not many of us are going anywhere, so there’s an added layer of value to mentally retreating to home territory from time to time.
I’ve used the North Okanagan as the backdrop for Watching July and Best Laid Plans. I drew on settings from personal experience to both write what I knew and to offer Okanagan readers the novelty of seeing their own backyards in a fictional novel. When I was a little girl, any story I read set in British Columbia was usually in Vancouver, but even then, I felt more connected to the work. Like the feeling many of us get noticing Lower Mainland and Interior BC settings in contemporary film and television.
For The Electric Girl, I wanted to add one more element to the idea of going home. I wanted to go back in time as well. But don’t worry, there are zero spoilers below! It’s strictly shop talk.
When? The Summer of 1988
I chose the late 1980s for a simple reason; it was an idyllic period in my life and I have fond memories of being an outdoor kid in that time. And now having children of my own, handing down toys and ephemera, sparked a realization that visiting my personal past, and that time in general, was a positive experience. I can only hope that I was able to recreate 1988 well enough for that emotion to translate into a good feeling for my readers too.
Where? The Okanagan in BC
If you’ve visited the Okanagan, you know it’s beautiful, and to some extent, still unspoiled. Lakes give us beaches. Semi-arid hillsides give us orchards and vineyards. While the distance from major cities provides the experience of a slower pace — and this was much more pronounced in the 1980s and 90s.
The Okanagan has no overly dramatic landmarks beyond lovely vistas and perhaps the odd kitschy installation like Kelowna’s ogopogo statue or Penticton’s peach ice cream stand. Using a setting like this works well to create a relatable hometown atmosphere applicable to regions from central British Columbia all the way through the states of Washington, Oregon, and California.
What? Small Town & Rural Terrain
Rural living and being a part of a small community has instant appeals. Urbanites dreaming of a daily life that is simple and stress-free, surrounded by fresh air and friendly faces, might see small towns as attractive. And residents of small towns may want to see their unique landscapes represented in stories rather than the same big cities over and over.
However, small towns are often depicted in popular culture as clean, wholesome, and prosperous, further feeding into the idea that to escape the city is to escape corruption, poverty, and decay. Reality is more complicated though, and when you write a rural setting, you have to choose how much truth to include.
Small towns, until very recently, sometimes had insurmountable economic challenges tied to regional resources, weather, and vulnerability owing to reliance on a few key employers. And you expect to see (and be seen by) people you know when you run errands or dine out. That level of interconnection can feel welcoming or suffocating. Or both.
So, retro settings are not for everyone. Neither are small town lifestyles. But the magic of being inside a fictional world is that you can experience the charm of a place — like fresh cherries on tree branches and cycling along rural traffic-free roads — without making the commitment to live there.
Next time I talk about setting will be Part 2. That’s where it’ll get weird. I promise.