Susan Mallery, the Tolkien of romance, shines in Fool’s Gold worldbuilding

in Romance by

Fool’s Gold, California, was officially established in 1849. There’s a town festival every April called the Easter Egg Drop. If you’re looking for a drink, try the Fox and Hound, with 25 beers on tap. Or maybe step into Jo’s Bar, where every night is ladies’ night.

No, I’m not actually describing a real town. Fool’s Gold is the brainchild of popular romance writer Susan Mallery, and she has created an entire world within this quaint small town. Visit her website and you can find maps, a complete history, a who’s who guide, and even ads for various businesses. This level of worldbuilding is something we usually only see in fantasy and paranormal novels. But there’s no denying the attention to detail that Mallery brings to her town and characters—making her the Tolkien or George R.R. Martin of the romance world.

Thrill meWorldbuilding is a writerly term used to describe the way an author creates an entire world for his or her characters. It’s not just about describing the setting—it’s the terrain of the landscape, the town next door, the local businesses, the made-up languages. As one of my professors used to say: “You can create whatever world you want, but the buses have to run on time.” Even if everyone in your story is green and flying cows are the only mode of transportation, you still need to know that world down to the bus schedule.

For romance and contemporary writers, worldbuilding isn’t usually part of the conversation. Because their novels exist in a world we already know, there’s less initial establishing that needs to take place. Which is why we’ve come to associate worldbuilding with paranormal, sci-fi, or fantasy writers—after all, they’re creating an entirely new world from scratch. But while Mallery’s books might take place in our contemporary present day, her Fool’s Gold, California, is presented as a real-life town, filled with the bustling, fascinating characters from Mallery’s books.

The Fool’s Gold series currently boasts more than 20 novels, with Mallery writing a new trilogy each year. Titles releasing in 2015 are Hold Me in May, Kiss Me in July, and Thrill Me in August. The idea for the series originally came to Mallery when she was having lunch with friend and fellow New York Times bestseller Debbie Macomber. Macomber suggested writing a series set in a town, as it would give Mallery more options when it came to expanding her novels. The seed was planted, but even then, Mallery had no idea how huge Fool’s Gold would become. “The town was not planned; it grew organically from the books I was writing,” Mallery says. “By year two it was totally out of control as far as size.”

Knowing that she needed to become more organized, Mallery enlisted the help of a digital assistant to create a comprehensive database on Fool’s Gold. “I want to tell you it’s all in my head,” says Mallery. “But it’s not—the bible for Fool’s Gold is almost 300 pages.” The database includes names of restaurants, who’s having a baby when, and even what pet everyone owns. While writing her books, Mallery can search for characters by name or occupation, and she regularly consults the maps she and her assistant have created for the town. “When you read my book and it says, ‘He turned west on 4th and walked to X,’ he really did.” And those maps, which are available on her website, are key. “For the readers it’s such a wonderful thing to be able to see the parade route, to see all the houses. It adds a dimension of realism that deepens the experience.”

susan_pic2013That sense of realism is a huge part of why readers keep coming back for more Fool’s Gold—as well as Mallery’s hands-on interactions with her fans. “I realized I needed a local coffee place and I ended up writing an entire book about how the company comes to be,” she says. The book eventually turned into Just One Kiss, but Mallery admits she had a hard time coming up with a name for the business. “So I put it out on Facebook,” she tells us, “and readers came up with amazing suggestions. That started the readers naming my businesses.” The coffee shop ended up being called Brew Ha Ha, and started a unique relationship between Mallery and her readers. Now she often asks for names or ideas on Facebook, and if she picks yours, she’ll use your last name somewhere else in the book.

Perhaps this is why Fool’s Gold has come to mean so much to Mallery’s dedicated fans. She often gets emails from people saying that they want to move there, or lamenting the fact that it’s not a real town. “My favorite is an email where a reader said, ‘Oh, my mom grew up there and she loved it,’” Mallery laughs. And she’ll be the first to admit that readers can be very forgiving as the town expands. “This year there’s a new ranch that was never mentioned before last year, but no one emails and complains. They understand the world is growing and there’s going to be little bumps in the road, so to speak, and they go with it.”

With a world as big as Fool’s Gold, it’s amazing that Mallery manages to keep any of it straight, even with a 300-page database. But as she tells us, “All good fiction builds the world…Talking heads could technically work, but it’s not very interesting.” Still, the level of worldbuilding she’s brings to her romance novels, and the way readers can interact with her world both online and through Mallery herself, is unmatched. According to Mallery, she wouldn’t have it any other way: “This is escapist fiction—anything we can do to make the escape more complete and the experience more pleasurable, I’m happy to do. I love it too; I want to be swept away, and I think this helps.”

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Rachel Carter grew up surrounded by trees and snow and mountains. She graduated from the University of Vermont and Columbia University, where she received her MFA in nonfiction writing. She is the author of the So Close to You series with Harperteen. These days you can find her working on her next novel in the woods of Vermont.