Every story needs to be grounded. That grounding or foundation is created when a context is developed. A context bible can help you give a character a place to begin, a place to set her feet and then jump into or away from when the action indicates.
Although it’s always advisable to begin a story right away with the main character in action, sooner or later that character is going to need to go somewhere. Where is that somewhere? And is that somewhere important? The amount of context developed in the story answers those questions for the reader. And to help you figure that out, you need to develop a context bible.
Creating a context bible isn’t much different from creating a character bible. Its purpose is pretty much the same: to help you develop, know, and evocatively describe all the different places where the action occurs. A context bible keeps all the location information in one spot.
To create your context bible, you need to ask some fundamental questions about the environment where you want to place your character. The purpose to these questions is to make a place come alive, much like a well-developed character does.
The context should be so well created that a reader can place herself there and actually imagine what it looks like, how it feels to live in or visit that place, what different parts of the city smell or feel like, and what characterizes its tone, style, and inhabitants.
Here are some questions you can ask to develop an environment for your story:
What is the place called? Where did that name come from?
What part of the world is it in? Is it near water? Mountains? Plains? How does this location establish a tone to the place?
What is the ethnic makeup? If mixed, is it blended or segregated?
Is there a central area where people congregate, tourists visit, or the place is known for?
What does it smell like?
What different noises or sounds do you hear when walking down a street?
What is the place known for? How does that affect its character?
What is the first thing newcomers notice when they arrive?
Creating and developing a context does not necessarily mean including paragraph upon paragraph of description in your finished story. Exactly the opposite: It means knowing a place well enough that a few well-chosen sentences can evoke a feeling or tone for the place for the reader.
Often, you read books starring characters that come from real cities. The author drops the name of the city and leaves it at that. What a rip-off. The reader may not know what he is missing — and that is the writer’s fault.
For example, Lisa comes from Los Angeles, California, which isn’t just a huge city, but is a huge county with many different cities inside it, each with its own character. People who live in each of these cities are assumed to share in the character of the place they have chosen to live.
For example, people who live in Venice, California, have chosen to inhabit an artsy, youthful beach community packed with pedestrians, culturally mixed, and impossible to drive through on sunny summer weekends. There are lots of restaurants and funky shops, with the decrepit right next door to the brand-spanking new.
If you’re familiar with Venice, you know that people who choose to live there accept and even embrace what Venice has to offer — both good and bad. So a character who comes from Venice will be assumed to possess an artistic and accepting attitude or to enjoy being surrounded by others who do — but only if you’re familiar with that area can you know enough to assume that about the character.
If you’re not familiar with that area, you need the writer to let you in on its secrets so that you can better understand the character inhabiting or visiting that place.