How do authors craft imaginary worlds through literature?

  • Swamini Deshpande, Mumbai
  • Updated: Jun 18, 2016 11:31 IST
The Trevi Fountain in Rome has been accurately described in Dan Brown’s novels.

The library is cool and smells like carpet cleaner, although all I can see is marble. I have gotten past the dark, foreboding entrance. My boot heels rap the wooden floor…”

So starts the best-selling novel The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009), by American author Audrey Niffenegger. Her words transport the readers to the very library she speaks of, and makes them feel like an integral part of the narrative right from the beginning.

As an architect, naturally, visualising the world inside the books is an integral part of my reading experience. Graphic descriptions of the physical environment is the very definition of joy.

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizadry. (Photo:

Though I’ve always been keen on reading details of space and architecture, the ‘seeing’ aspect became more essential once I started studying architecture and understood the morals of why we build what we build. It was only natural that I started paying special attention to the surroundings of the fantasy worlds as well.

As readers, we depend completely on the writer’s choice of transcribed imageries to build our own version of the physical contexts of an imaginary world. But we just take the outlines set down by the author, and fill in the details through our creativity. We draw mental maps, and slowly construct the houses, the roads, and entire cities for ourselves.

The Gothic castle of Hogwarts. (Photo:

I remember, in my first year of studying architecture, I drew a detailed map of Hogwarts inspired by JK Rowling’s description: the Gothic castle next to a vast lake, with its intricate corridors, halls, classrooms and libraries; Hagrid’s hut on the outskirts of the Forbidden Forest, and, of course, the Quidditch Pitch.

In fact, if anyone asked me about a place where they could see the most splendid Christmas decorations, my immediate reply was, “The Great Hall at Hogwarts,” because I knew how it looked even before I saw it in the films.

Such is the power of the words that writers choose to carve out the spaces. Yet another master of this art is Dan Brown. Though he speaks of real locations, his elaborate descriptions of ancient Rome and the Vatican are impressively accurate. He has painted everything from St Peter’s Basilica, St Peter’s Square, and the Papal library with such finesse that one might get a free tour through his writing. A friend who visited Rome actually used his copy of Angels and Demons as a guide for most of his tour.

Brown has painted St Peter’s Basilicawith such finesse that one might get a free tour through his writing. (Photo: Wikipedia Commons )

Be it Hogwarts, the Hobbit’s Hole in JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Brown’s cathedrals and churches, or Ruskin Bond’s Dehradun — every story has a physical existence, complete with an original geography, climate, smell, and colours: an aspect of storytelling that we take for granted, and which doesn’t get the appreciation it deserves. Think of it this way: a painting cannot exist without a frame; a story cannot exist without a setting.

So, when readers talk about escaping into a world that exists in our minds, a lot of the time, they are borrowed from stories we love. And when we visit them through our memory, we essentially revisit a retreat, a home away from home.

Hobbit’s Hole in JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

So, the next time you start reading a book, pay conscious attention to the world hidden behind words. And remember Albus Dumbledore’s famous words: “Of course it is happening inside your head... but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

Deshpande is an architect and a poetry enthusiast.

Must attend

Deshpande will host Tell Me What You See, a writing workshop on how to create structures and spaces through words, on Sunday, June 19, at 10.30 am

Where: The Hive, next to Ahmed Bakery, Bandra (W)

Call: 96199 62969

Price: Rs 300 onward

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