My very favorite romance review site is the Book Utopia blog. Utopia Mom is highly literate and her tastes are catholic (as in wide-ranging, not religious). Her review rubric consists of numerical ratings. She judges plot, entertainment value, characters and "world-building". For a reviewer to put so much weight on the world-building, especially in a contemporary romance, is unusual.
The term world-building supposedly has its origins in science fiction writing. Makes sense. It's difficult to write convincingly of a world nobody's ever seen. But the genre requires it be done well. The world has to be alien, but not so alien the reader can't ultimately comprehend it or care about it. The world also has to have some logical structure. The most primitive aspects of civilization cannot be forgotten in an effort to describe the advanced. Where does food come from? Where are the children? I think the most brilliant SF world-building is found in the Dune series by Frank Herbert. One of the settings in this space opera is a seemingly lifeless, waterless planet of sand, which has a startling ecology central to the economics of this particular universe.
Historical fiction also has high world-building standards. A great example of world-building in a historical is The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. The setting here is medieval monastic life. The Abbey is so richly described and malevolent, it is a character in and of itself.
I think that's true of the best world-building. The world is a character. An environment has smells and taste; a background society has texture and demands; a setting has intrinsic drama. The purpose of world-building, just like plot and human character, is to draw in a reader. Plot takes time to evolve--a whole book, basically. Human character development also takes time, unless you use stock people. The character of the world, however, can sometimes be described quickly and evocatively.
How does a writer create a profound fictional world in a contemporary romance novel? Suppose the paranormal is closed off to the central couple: there's no magic or vampires. Assume the earth isn't hit by asteroids or swallowed up by volcanoes. Neither is the couple a part of some unusual subculture like the super-rich or computer hackers or druggies. The world of this fictional couple is pretty much the same one you and I occupy.
How can an author make that regular world fresh and vivid?
I'm not sure, because I like writing about subcultures. But I suppose a writer builds a normal world in the same way as a writer develops an abnormal world. Even an environment of Burger Kings, waiting at red lights, paying rent and watching Glee has plenty of texture.
I just read an example of a lovely bit of world-building in a recently released contemporary erotic romance novella. It's called Doll, by Juniper Bell. Here's an excerpt:
She sat on one of the window seats and listened to the symphony of moans and whistles. Far below, she heard the ocean swells crashing against the rocks.The setting in Doll isn't especially strange. Most readers have probably experienced a windstorm and seen the ocean. Nonetheless, the author has created a vibrant and real environmental character. In these few lines, Juniper Bell has made the reader a seductive promise: my characters and plot will be just as extraordinary and satisfying as my world-building.
Strange how the wind seemed to be flinging itself at the windows. As if it wanted to get in. To get to her. It sounded like a bitter roar, like Andrew when she’d screwed up every ounce of her courage and told him she wanted a divorce.
Photo credit NASA public domain.