At one point, I was writing about a small liberal arts school in New England that had been taken over by an armed cult. When I was in high school this was the liberal arts college I had in mind—an amalgamation of every New England liberal arts school (minus the armed cult part). Brick buildings with ivy growing on them, huge fields of green grass, a more or less enclosed space. Somehow every single school I went to ended up being a city campus which probably is the best match for my personality, although when I was in graduate school and had a brief flirtation with becoming a professor, it was those campuses I was thinking about. Small, enclosed, green grass. Quirks I saw during a brief stay at Middlebury: the aggressive sign in the cafeteria which said “Please do not take the lunch trays—THAT’S NOT SUSTAINABLE!” (Presumably people were taking them to go sledding.) Also there was one main street “in town” that had one bar that everyone would go to.
For the book I was writing, why bother going with a real school when I would make up my own and therefore have all my own rules (they can take the lunch trays whenever they want!!) Particularly in stories that take place in an enclosed space, knowing where everything is—and having your characters know this intuitively without them figuring it out on the page—is critical. How big is campus? Where do people live? Where do they eat or congregate after class? Where did that kid get caught having sex in the bushes by the campus police? Where’d they find the dead girl? Where would you hide a gun where no one would find it? How far do random pairings of characters live from each other?
I’ve been working on a lot of things at once recently, but have wanted to get going on this speculative fiction thing I’m writing which is sort of like a literary/scifi retelling of the Jonestown Massacre. So I more or less know the beginning and the end. Our heroes arrive at a commune where family members have claimed that abuse is occurring. It’s an enclosed space. I know that things start out fine—the commune seems idyllic and people play volleyball and have plenty to eat. Then things go horribly wrong. How and where do they go wrong? I didn’t have a pre-set idea of things already arranged in my head like I did for the college story so I figured I would start to draw a map and maybe fill things out. I mean, if I were building a commune, where would people eat? Sleep? Where’d they bury the dead girl? Where’s the fence weak? Isn’t that an incredibly small area to grow crops for a commune that is allegedly self-sustainable..?