Nov 10 2011 3:00pm

Worldbuilding in Contemporary Romance: Shalvis, Higgins, Janzen, and More!

Simply Irresistible by Jill ShalvisWhen we think of worldbuilding, we’re likely to think about fantasy or paranormal romance where a writer creates an entirely new world for their characters to inhabit. But worldbuilding isn’t just for fantasy; when an author writes a contemporary romance, she is building a world. A world that readers have never been to. We may all live in contemporary settings, in houses and apartments, and work in office buildings or whatever; but nobody has ever seen the world an author’s characters inhabit―because she’s making it up.

Authors know the importance of setting in fiction. Setting has even been described as “the main character” of the novel. It must be described in enough detail that the reader can experience it, but not so much detail that the reader gets bogged down in pages of description. Good worldbuilding also creates a setting that integrates with both the story and the characters.

Sometimes contemporary romances are set in real cities or towns. Sometimes they’re set in locations the author has invented. Sometimes the world is the setting for a series of stories, a world that we learn more about with every book in the series, or it can be the setting for a stand-alone story.

I’ve recently been reading Jill Shalvis’s series of books set in Lucky Harbor. When Maddie arrives at Lucky Harbor in Simply Irresistible, she is greeted by a sign that reads:

Welcome to Lucky Harbor!
Home to 2100 lucky people
And 10,100 shellfish

This instantly creates a picture in my mind of a small, quirky seaside town.

This is moments later as Maddie continues her drive into Lucky Harbor:

The highway in front of her wound its way alongside a cliff on her right, which probably hid more wildlife than this affirmed city girl wanted to think about. Far below the road on her left, the Pacific Ocean pitched and rolled, fog lingering in long silvery fingers on the frothy water.

Not only does this setting tell us something about Lucky Harbor, it tells us something about Maddie.

Catch of the Day by Kristan HigginsKristan Higgins uses different settings in each of her books, but one thing that is the same is that her heroine loves the world she lives in. It becomes an integral part of her character. From Catch of the Day:

It’s not easy being a single woman in Gideon’s Cove, Maine, population 1,407. Ostensibly there are enough males for females, but statistics can be misleading. Our town is in Washington Country, the northernmost coastal county in our great state. We’re too far from Bar Harbor to attract many tourists, although we do live in what is undeniably one of the most beautiful areas of America. Gray-shingled houses hug the harbor, and the air snaps with the smell of pine and salt. We’re a pretty old-fashioned town—most people make their living either by fishing, lobstering or working in the blueberry industry. It’s a lovely place, but it’s remote, a good three hundred miles north of Boston. Five hundred from New York City. Meeting new people is difficult.

Again, this world is not only a backdrop for the story but serves to help explain to us part of the reason Maggie has (shockingly!) fallen in love with a priest.

Tara Janzen created a unique world in her Steele Street stories. The author note at the beginning of Crazy Hot, the first book in the Steele Street series says: “Anyone familiar with the beautiful city of Denver, Colorado will notice that I changed a few parts of downtown to suit the story. Most notably, I took Steele Street and turned it into an alley in lower downtown, a restored historic neighborhood in the heart of Denver known as LoDo.” So she took a real life setting and created her own world within it, the chop shop that is the cover for the Special Defense Force, with its amazing offices and apartments, and the garage that houses all those beautiful American muscle cars. Steele Street forms an integral part of her heroes (and some heroines), even the ones who end up on missions in far-away countries.When Regan first sees Steele Street in Crazy Hot, this is her reaction:

Steele Street didn’t look like anything Regan had imagined. She’d expected a car lot full of cars, some of which they probably couldn’t sell on their best day, the ones that looked like Jeannette. But there were no cars. There wasn’t even a car lot. Steele Street was an iron door in a dark alley in a bad part of town, with no sign except for the numbers 738 above the door, and an ancient freight elevator that crawled up the side of the old brick building like a vertical catwalk, its steel beams exposed. Quinn had driven Jeanette right into the elevator cage and onto the lift platform, after keying in a code. The gears ground and the cable groaned as the lift started and began hauling the car to the seventh floor.

Wow! I’ve never driven a car into an elevator! And in later books, we get to explore more and more of 738 Steele Street, including Creed’s amazing apartment with palm trees, a lagoon and a waterfall!

Venus in Blue Jeans by Meg BenjaminMeg Benjamin has created an enduring world for her series of books set in Konigsburg, Texas. I asked Meg about her worldbuilding, about whether she uses images or maps, or what kinds of tools she uses to keep track of details. She told me that because Konigsburg is based on a town she is familiar with (Fredericksburg) she hasn’t had to use those kinds of tools. She says, “I definitely have a mental image of what Fredericksburg looks like because I’ve spent a lot of time there...So when I have my characters walk around town, in my mind they’re walking around Fredericksburg and I know where things are.”

Lorelei James writes a couple of series (Black Top Cowboys and Rough Riders) that are both set in the west, in the world of cowboys and ranches and rodeos. Lorelei lives in that “real world” and has created a similar fictional world for her characters. On her website, she says her real world “is chock-full of interesting characters, including cowboys, Indians, ranchers, and bikers. The geographical diversity of the surrounding area showcases mountains, plains, and badlands. Living in and writing about rural settings gives me a unique perspective, especially since I’m not writing historical westerns. Through my fictional world, I can show the ideals and the cowboy way of life are still very much alive.” The settings and characters she creates carry over from book to book in the series, providing not only a backdrop for the stories but qualities that are integral to her characters.

Another important part of all these “worlds” the authors have created are the secondary characters. One of the benefits of good worldbuilding is that it can provide ideas for plot and character. Meg Benjamin is known for her interesting secondary characters. About them, she says, “I guess I create the places—the winery, the bar, the bookstore—and then the people show up to populate them.” Lucky Harbor, Gideon’s Cove, and Steele Street also all have interesting and distinctive characters that uniquely belong in those settings.

These are just a few examples of worlds authors have built in contemporary romances —what are some contemporary worlds that have resonated with you?


Kelly Jamieson is an author, wife, mother and avid romance reader. Find her at, on Twitter @KellyJamieson or Facebook.

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Heather Waters
1. HeatherWaters
I've only read one Kristan Higgins--Just One of the Guys--so far, but she really captured the small-town feel. It made for such an enjoyable read. Need to check out the other recs you've made here!
2. VanessaBF
Great commentary. I know when I think of world building I think of Scifi and paranormal/fantasy novels. Your article has definitely opened my eyes. Thanks.
Charli Mac
3. CharliMac
I've read Shalvis' Lucky Harbor series and fell in love with the setting. As Liz Lemon once said, "I want to go to there." I emailed Jill and asked her if its real. Sadly, no. It is so well written you feel like you are there though, and that's good enough for me. :)
Kelly Jamieson
4. KellyJ
Thanks for the comments! @redline, yes Kristin does a good job of the small-town feel. VanessaBF, I always though world building was for fantasy too. CharliMac, that's a good job of world building when you want it to be real so you can go there, right?
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