Writing: World-Building


As per the last blog, the first novel of my post-UK period, The Family Idiots, is near enough finished (just proofing, etc) so I have moved on to writing the next two books, in parallel and (sort of) intertwining: Urim and The Museum Quarter. Contrary to the implication of the title, The Museum Quarter is as much about museums as Sartre’s Roads to Freedom is about living in Paris or Lord of the Flies is about life on an island. Maybe its antecedence is closer to George Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual (without the OULIPO).

If you watch ‘how to write’ YouTube videos etc. (which I wouldn’t advise), one of the things often extolled is “world-building” your novel, a convincing world for the reader to navigate. The Museum Quarter is not about museums, but there are five museums in its world. Two or three of them are composites of museums I know well, but I wanted a New Art Museum, which needed to be authoritatively contemporary. So rather than conjure up something architecturally unconvincing, I turned to a real architect, Maurice Shapero, whom I curated in my last show in Bury Art Museum. After the show we completed a book of my poem ‘Architecture & Now’ and his drawings but Covid and related budget issues interfered with the final production. Although the new novel is set in an unspecified city, there is a steeply sloping site in Porto, slowly intersected by the curve of Rua Amaldo Leite and Rua da Mocidade da Arrábida, and dropping down from Campo Alegre to the Douro river, which I walk Barney through quite often and I began to see this as the location for the New Art Museum. 

I shared a Google maps screenshot to Maurice, hopeful that he’d be at least up for a quick sketch from his kitchen table which I could fill in the gaps novelistically. But it turns out novel ‘world-building’ has stepped up to a level, maybe even to a new genre. Architects rarely get a brief for such an ambitious site, where there is no budget limit and no planning bureaucracy, an opportunity for free architectural expression; this is the sort of non-brief I used to give artists I was curating. Who cares what the curator wants? It’s the artist that is doing the creating. And Maurice has embraced the brief: the Museum Quarter will have its New Art Museum (link). I look forward to the novel’s ‘characters’ wandering its halls incised into the slope (below):

I’m not going to say much more about the novel because the focus is on writing it rather than talking about writing it, but with five museums to wander around, in the same spirit, I have also invited one guest curator and various artists to exhibit in shows that won’t exist. Hopefully, the novel’s funders, ‘stakeholders’ and visitors to these museums are not going to be happy.



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