Imagine a house. You walk through the front door and find a kitchenette to the left-hand side, decked with a mottled marble countertop in a swirl of browns and beiges. As you continue down the narrow corridor, you’re presented with a living room. Two sofas surround a humble television set mounted on the wall, with a set of French windows on the far side that lead you directly into the garden.
My subconscious chose my childhood home, which did in fact have a kitchenette off the entryway but on the right-hand side
If your brain works anything like mine, when I said imagine a house, you imagined someplace you have either lived in or spent time in at some point in your life. As I added more details, you had to reconfigure the existing blueprints your mind presented you of the house you already know, adapting the layout to fit these new details. My subconscious chose my childhood home, which did in fact have a kitchenette off the entryway but on the right-hand side, so all my brain did was take my mind’s image of that house and swap the kitchenette to the left. Our countertops were white, but as I read the description of the brown and beige, the countertop of my childhood home transformed into the fitting colours. Where were the sofas positioned in the living room of your imagination? How large was the room? What colour(s) were the sofas? No surprise here, but mine perfectly resembled the living room I grew up in, with a staircase leading off to the left, two black leather sofas with a dining table standing behind and the view of a small square garden greeting me through the French windows.
Imagine a classroom. My mind defaults to my Year 5 classroom with five hexagonal tables placed across the room, facing a whiteboard on the left and a smartboard in the centre of the wall, with the teacher’s desk by the door on the right. As the authors of my favourite childhood novels, like Class A by Robert Muchamore, described the classrooms in their worlds further, my mind once again transformed the existing base I envisaged, adapting it to accommodate for each new detail presented to me until I was able to mould the world in my brain to fit the world posed on the page. When I read Harry Potter, as Rowling specified desks in rows, my brain defaulted to my Year 9 science lab, befit with the wooden desks and chalkboard. All this is to say, I have never conjured a setting from scratch anytime I have read.
In order to create worlds that readers are in fact able to build in their own minds, authors will often draw inspiration from real situations that hold fantastical undertones
Now you might be thinking, what about fantasy worlds where there is no choice but to start from scratch as these worlds are entirely based in the unknown, i.e. that which doesn’t remotely exist. Yet in order to create worlds that readers are in fact able to build in their own minds, authors will often draw inspiration from real situations that hold fantastical undertones, from myths set in the ancient worlds of India, Egypt or Greece, to the arcadian setting of Medieval England. When I envisaged the towns and landscapes present in Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, I was drawn to imagine Ketterdam as reminiscent of the streets found in Peaky Blinders, with a more medieval spin, as both carried airs of doom, deceit and despair, with a maze of criminal activity bubbling under the surface of the city. Bardugo herself says she drew inspiration from Tsarist Russia, choosing to swing in a different direction to the standard settings based upon Medieval Europe, which I found reflected in how many aspects of the setting I found myself having to adapt as I read the book, leaving me in a place in my imagination unlike any place I had created before. Yet crucially, I still began with something familiar – the scenes I saw on screen that my mind was able to stir with such minimal effort, which then morphed into the incredible background for one of my favourite fantasy duologies.
I guess what I’m getting at is when I read I never begin with a blank canvas. This may not be an experience every reader shares; I know it certainly isn’t because those with aphantasia don’t visualise anything when they read. Yet even if you do have a mental movie playing as you’re drawn into each new world a book offers, you may be someone who begins with a blank canvas that’s brought to life as the pages turn. But I know that will never be my experience, because as soon as a book begins, I already find myself in a familiar setting, with a mental pencil in hand ready to adjust things as I go along.