Back to Basics, part IV: Worldbuilding and Research


So far the “Back to Basics” series has focused on aspects of writing life that provide the foundation for the actual work we do — “Being a Writer,” “Organizing Time,” “Self-Confidence.” Now it’s time to get into the meat of what we actually do as writers.  And I thought I would begin by revisiting a topic we’ve dealt with before:  worldbuilding and research.

No matter what we write — fantasy, science fiction, mystery, romance, Westerns, mainstream literature — we need to set the scene for our work.  More often than not this is going to involve worldbuilding and research.  “Wait,” you say.  “Worldbuilding?  In romance?  In mainstream lit?”  To which I reply, “Absolutely.”

Unless your entire story takes place inside a cardboard box, you are going to need to build the sets for your story, much as a theater company would for a play.  Actually, I take that back.  You’ll have to do this even if your story takes place in a cardboard box.  Because if your entire story takes place in that box, you want to know what it smells like, what is written on its sides, how it behaves in wind or rain or the heat of midday.  You have to understand that cardboard box at the most fundamental level, so that when your character steps into it, she takes the reader with her.  Somehow, worldbuilding has come to imply the creation of an imaginary alternate world, one with magic or some kind of funky, hitherto unheard of technology.  In other words, “worldbuilding” is now seen as something unique to speculative fiction.  It shouldn’t be.  Every work of fiction needs to take place somewhere, and we as writers have to construct these settings for our readers so that they feel real, multidimensional, alive.  I don’t care if it’s the Braedon Empire on the western edge of the Forelands or a nightclub on the West Side of New York City.

Whether we are creating an imagined world or researching an existing one, we are doing work that is crucial to the success of our story.  So what are some of the basics that make it possible for us to do that work successfully?

1. Well, to begin, you need to know what questions you ought to be answering with your worldbuilding and research. If you’re writing an alternate world fantasy — doing worldbuilding in the genre-specific sense of the word — you have to decide what kind of world it’s going to be.  For instance, when I began work on the Forelands series, I knew a few things:  I wanted this to be a quasi-Medieval society.  I wanted there to be multiple kingdoms sharing the landmass, all of them rivals of one sort or another.  I wanted the political traditions to be fairly well developed and organized.  I wanted there to be two races, one with magic, one without.  I wanted there to be rival religious traditions.  Knowing these things actually gave my worldbuilding and research a great deal of direction.  I needed to learn all I could about castles and Medieval weaponry.  I needed to come up with political systems that were both familiar enough to make sense and unique enough to make my readers go “Wow!  Cool!”  I needed to develop magic in a way that separated the races from one another and that followed my usual rules about magic systems (Consistency, Cost, Limits). Similarly, when I was researching late-eighteenth century Boston for the Thieftaker books, I had a long list of things I needed to know — ranging from the political structure of the Province of Massachusetts Bay to the way Bostonians handled the contents of their chamber pots.

I am not going to presume to instruct anyone in the ways of worldbuilding or doing research.  Each writer’s worldbuilding needs are going to be unique to his or her project.  Maybe you’re writing about a desert society.  You better learn all you can about the climatology, flora and fauna, and geology of deserts.  Maybe you’re writing about a matriarchy.  It might be helpful to study matriarchies in our own world.  You get the idea.  My point is that when we start worldbuilding and researching, we need to have some idea of what questions to ask, what information to seek out.  The questions don’t all have to be specific — with the Forelands books, I wanted to learn more about mythology in our world so that I could create authentic-sounding mythologies for my world.  I read a ton.  I did the intellectual equivalent of grazing.  There was something random about my mythological readings, and yet I was directed in that I knew what I needed to find out.  And that’s what I’m getting at.  You don’t want your worldbuilding/research to be aimless and without goals.  Have questions, goals, even if they’re somewhat vague to begin with.  You’ll quickly recognize what’s helpful and what’s not.  Knowing those questions at the outset will help you with the second basic element of worldbuilding/research . . .

2.  We also need to know when to stop. This probably sounds pretty simple, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve encountered writers who tell me that they have gotten stuck on their research.  They start researching or worldbuilding and they just keep on going.  Some are afraid that they don’t have enough information; that they never will.  Others just enjoy the research so much that the process sort of swallows them up.  That’s very nice, but if their goal is to write a novel, it’s a problem.  I usually assign myself a certain amount of time for worldbuilding and research.  Four weeks.  Six weeks.  Two months at the most.  If I haven’t learned or developed everything I need to by the end of two months, I need to rethink my world; it’s too complicated.  Actually, more often than not, I find that I stop before my allotted time is over.  For the project I’m working on now, I simply reached a point in my work where I realized that the prep wasn’t helping anymore.  I had answered those questions I mentioned in step 1 and was ready to begin writing.  So that’s what I did.  Only you can know where that point is.  But here’s the key:  You want to create a foundation for your story telling.  You want to start with a setting that looks and smells and sounds real, that will draw your reader in.  But just because you have turned from worldbuilding to writing, that doesn’t mean that you can’t go back and fill in gaps in your preparation as you write.  It’s not necessary to anticipate and answer every question.  You want to address as many as you can, but you are always going to encounter new questions along the way.  That’s okay.  Do what you can in the preparation stage, and then fill in as you go.  Just remember that you’re a writer, not a researcher.  As much fun as the research might be, eventually — sooner rather than later — you need to start writing.

3.  Don’t try to tell your reader everything you’ve learned. I refer to this as the iceberg principle:  the vast majority of the work you do researching and developing your setting is going to remain below the surface, out of sight.  You only need to show your readers the salient details, those little touches that help to bring your work to life.  Handled well, those small details will give depth and texture and dimension to your world without becoming overly burdensome.  In other words, you want the few details you do share to convey the hidden weight of all that you know about your world.  And this holds for research as well as worldbuilding.  It’s incredibly tempting to share with your reader all the cool things you’ve learned about or created in your world — believe me, I know all about that temptation.  But conveying too much information is going to bog down your narrative, it’s going to fill your book with data dumps, and, most important, it’s going to distract you and your reader from the real purpose of what you’re doing:  telling your story.

4.  Remember that worldbuilding is an ongoing process. This is a corollary of sorts to number 3.  What I mean by “an ongoing process” is that worldbuilding doesn’t end when you stop doing the research and filling in your notebooks with hereditary lines of kings or detailed maps of your world.  And I’m not even referring to going back and filling in those gaps I mention under number 2.  Worldbuilding is something that we should be reinforcing constantly in the writing of our novels or stories.  We should do it with analogies, metaphors, and similes that invoke aspects of our worldbuilding.  If we’re writing that story set in a desert world, we should play with aridity themes, use metaphors that reinforce the preciousness of rain and water or the oppressiveness of the midday sun.  In part this goes back to the post on Descriptive Passages I wrote a couple of months ago.  But it should also go beyond that.  The way your characters speak — their everyday language — should also be influenced by the world in which they live, just as ours is.  I wrote a post about curses some time ago that illustrates the point I’m trying to make.  The curses in our world reflect our religious traditions, our cultural and social mores, our history.  Your characters shouldn’t speak like someone from our world, but rather like someone from the world you created.  This is how your worldbuilding becomes a continuing process.  It should do more than provide ambiance for your story; it should inform everything you do for your book.

5.  Make it cool. Another one that probably seems pretty basic.  It’s not.  If you’re developing a new world for your books — again, be it an imagined world or a real world setting — chances are you’re going to use it for several books.  A trilogy, or a five book series, or an ongoing serial that you hope will go on for many, many volumes.  You’re going to spend a lot of time there.  You’re going to work in that world every day, perhaps for years.  And then you’re going to ask readers to accompany you there, to return to the world again and again, and to pay money to do so.  You should love this world.  And so should they.  You should have fun with it, and make it so freakin’ amazing that you WANT to go there.  You should sculpt it with the loving care of an artist, you should imbue it with all the things that make you stop in the middle of your work and go “Wow!  That is so cool!!”  Yes, you want it to be accurate if it’s a historical and/or real world setting.  But you also want to bring out those details that fascinate you, because chances are they’ll fascinate your readers, too.  Ultimately, this is supposed to be fun.  Worldbuilding and research can often be the best part of the process.  Revel in it, and maybe your readers will as well.

What worlds are you working on?  In just a few words, can you share one very cool detail about the world for your WIP?  Here’s mine (as written in my notes):  “Wights are real and live in our world.  They have been given a bum rap in mythology.  They are not undead zombies who prey on the living.  Well, okay, they are.  But they have redeeming qualities, too.  They’re a good source of information, can be bought off fairly cheaply, and they only occasionally kill.  They will take blood, but without the whole vampire thing.  It’s a just a little blood, after all.”

David B. Coe

35 comments to Back to Basics, part IV: Worldbuilding and Research

  • Mikaela

    Great post, David. Setting is the only thing I can’t change. If I change it, the idea dies. My latest ideas came with two distinct settings: Ancient Greece, and East Asia :D.

    Something cool from the Greek idea:
    The Hestian Virgins are born with the power to summon the Sacred fire. Through the fire they can detect if someone is telling the truth. Because of this, they are in high demand as Judges.

  • Great Post, David. Number 5 resonates. Make it cool.

    I’m between drafts, and even though I had done some worldbuilding prior to any writing, the cultures I created seem too much like real-world historical peoples. I want to go back and see what I can change to make this more my own.

    I want more of the “Wow, cool” factor.


  • Great post, David. I especially like 3 and 5! A rule from my current WIP: The darkling mirrors, such as those sold in Mr. Octavius Peregrine’s Reflectory Emporium (Mirrors priceless and perilous) become doors and windows to another world when the sun goes down. If you enter (at your own considerable risk), be sure to be back before dawn or the portal will seal you inside…

  • David — I agree with NGDave. Fun resonates with me. If it isn’t fun, then I may as well stay forever in the lab. Writing needs to be a joyful experience, and I too often make it work. (That ugly muse doesn’t help, but he does get the done.)

    Comment from the outline of WIP, includes an ongoing change in the world of Jane Yellowrock:
    The fight is caught on security cameras. Jane has to get Reacher to pull strings and make the video evidence disappear. It costs her. And now Reacher knows something of Jane’s nature. Info about her is beginning to get out into the world.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Thank you for this post. Adding relevant research to my world-building is definitely a big, gaping hole in my current WIP, which currently – technically – has made it through first draft but which still needs substantial revision. Part of it is that I need to bite the bullet and actually go to the library – the internet is REALLY only going to give me so much. …perhaps I’m too easily daunted by book-type research.

    I’d like to offer something cool from my world-building, but I don’t have anything as striking as what others have offered. Mostly I’ve focused on quirky details of the setting: Most buildings are set partially into the ground so have steps leading down to their front doors; the city that most of the story takes place in is sort of tiered into the foothills of a mountain with the lowest level housing the dock-yards off the river and the highest taken up entirely by the Citadel (I just really like that word); five roads lead into the city, each with an open stone-carved archway (gate) marking the city bounds.

    (sorry for the babble – it’s setting that usually gets me most excited)

  • Thanks all for the comments and the cool details. Lots of cool worlds being created by people here at MW.

    Mikaela, thanks, glad you enjoyed the post. Your ancient Greece project sounds fascinating!

    NGD, the coolness really is everything. I believe strongly that readers can sense an author’s enthusiasm, even if they’re not fully aware that this is what they’re sensing. If you are totally jazzed about your world, that will come through in your writing. So, yes, do everything you can to up that “Wow!” factor.

    Thanks, A.J. The portal idea sounds fantastic — great potential for all sorts of plot points, adventures, and tension. Can’t wait to read it!

    Faith, yeah, I’m there with the fun, too. And I love where you’re taking Jane. Eager to read that, too!

    Hep, I do a good deal of online research, but I always wind up finding the best material in books and articles from the library. It is definitely worth the time and effort. I really like the architectural quirks of your world. Architecture is one of those things that writers too often ignore. Including that kind of detail and innovation in your work will absolutely set it apart. Best of luck with it.

  • Wonderfully done, David. I struggle myself with #3 the most, because as I come up with what I think is “cool stuff,” I want to dump it all in there, usually in the first 20 pages. My current WIP took me three or four drafts to get that out of my system. Fortunately, my one redeeming feature in this area is that at least I have the good sense to recognize it when I’m doing it (eventually, anyway) and cut myself off! Drip, drip, drip; that’s the way it put it in there. One cool drop at a time.

  • Unicorn

    I think I go overboard on number five. I decided to have an epic battle. Wow, how about an epic battle on a bridge over a lake? An epic battle on a marble bridge over a lake at sunset – how about sheets of flame with The Villain, who is sort of a lion with snakes for mane, jumping over/through them? Yeah! And… and how about kelpies and hippocampi splashing around in the lake? And how about a cadejo or two (extremely unheard-of but definitely cool magical beasts)? And how about vicious fighting unicorns dropping out of the sky and the bridge falling down and and and and… See what I mean? I do way too much. I love beauty, so I think I make the world in my head far too beautiful. Oh, of course, there is pain and terror and war and death, but it turns out to be beautiful anyway. It all turns out too epic, too melodramatic. The enthusiasm just bubbles over. It’s supposed to be one drop at a time, to steal Edmund’s phrase, but I end up swooshing floods through the story, all the time. Not necessarily info dumps, just melodrama dumps.
    Thanks for these “Back to Basics” posts – I’m enjoying them a lot.

  • Great post! Coolness is one of the most important things.

    In my current WIP, Hell Mary: Mary has the power of hellfire, a power that used to belong to angels, but was given to humans so they could fight the fallen angels. It has a personality and “lives” inside her. It is all about justice, getting out of her, and being allowed to burn the unjust (which might just be the whole world) down. There are 7 others like her in the world: water, earth, air, sound, silence, light, and darkness.

    In my current WIP, Knychtspelle (and I’ll see if Sarah thinks this is cool, too): Faeries have elemental magic (earth, air, wind, and water) and Deor, our MC is a changeling with earth magic: the rarest kind, metals. When she is afraid (and later, at will) her fingernails turn into silver blades. Later she’ll be able to fling the sharp shards away from her (like a shower of tiny daggers) and make daggers and swords out of herself and her own magic–they eventually dissipate. And they can’t hurt her.

  • Sarah

    I love hearing other people’s world concepts. Right now I’m researching gryphons to see if this new idea will turn into a new book project. We shall see.

    In my current WIP, Winter’s Dawn – Ravens have a collective consciousness and limited psychic ability to predict trouble coming. What one sees, they all know. However they have a very limited sense of time and their primary concern is food. And watching trouble happen. For them, battle is a spectator sport leading to a buffet.

    In Knychtspelle (co-written with Em) – Rafe, the MC’s love interest, is a Winter Court water faerie. He can pull heat out of the air around him as well as moisture. This means that when he’s angry he heats up, but the room around him freezes. When he’s really furious, frost appears on things and people’s drinks freeze. He’s learned to control this skill so Deor, who grew up in California, uses him as a space heater when she’s cold on winter nights. (He’s always happy for her to curl up next to him.)

  • Edmund, thanks. Yes, the info-drip — that’s the way to go. I think we all struggle with this; the temptation to tell all, and to do so immediately, is pretty strong.

    Unicorn, thank you. I’m glad you’re enjoying these posts. I understand the urge to go overboard (and your description of it is hilarious!). The fact that you’re aware of your tendency to do this bodes well for your ability to control the impulse. Too epic, too melodramatic? Hmmmmm, actually sounds a lot like my first book….

    Emily, thanks for sharing! Those are wonderful (and, yes, very, very cool). I particularly like the metals earth magic. Wonderful stuff.

    Sarah, we were just in the Grand Canyon, where ravens were omnipresent. I’m a birder anyway, but I found them totally cool. In the Forelands books, Ravens (four of them together) were a death omen. They also figure prominently in Native American mythology, especially in the Pacific Northwest, where I believe Raven was the Trickster. And I love the winter magic, too. You and Emily have quite the cool project going.

  • Thanks for another great post, David. I completely agree with everyone here about the fun aspect.

    I’m not sure if this constitutes as “cool”, but my WIP is set in the southern hemisphere of my MC’s world, meaning that her travels take her through a few different landscapes and it gets warmer as she heads north.

    But here’s something: in her world, landmaidens are gifted with healing powers and the ability to create small charms. At a certain age, their abilities strengthen for a time, and the landmaidens are expected to travel about, sharing their gifts while they’re stronger.

    This post reminds me that I have a few things/ideas/details I want to strengthen when I finish this rewrite and get to editing (which is very, very soon). Thank you.

  • I haven’t read the rest of the post yet – which I expect to be quite interesting – but I thought I’d point out a slight flaw in the reasoning during the early part.

    The word “worldbuilding” as it’s currently used exists because of speculative fiction (and as well to RPGs, which are typically speculative in nature) not despite it. This wasn’t a common idea in mainstream lit prior to the advent of speculative fiction, and there wasn’t a word for it. At least, the word wasn’t “worldbuilding”. It was “setting”.

    That’s why worldbuilding is taken to mean a specifically speculative-fiction trait. Because the word comes from that corner of the writing world.

    That said… the point that worldbuilding is important in the non-speculative genres stands – but as I said they call it something different there. They call it “setting”, and they do emphasize that setting is very important. We call it setting, sometimes, too… but in speculative fiction circles that word might get short shrift because it seems to imply only the immediate scenery of the scene, whereas worldbuilding seems to conjure up something much bigger and more all-encompassing of details of history and place together.

    Really, though, setting is the same: it’s all the details of history and place together.

  • Thanks, Laura. I have to say that I lived in Australia for a year, and I never quite got used to reorienting myself to being in the Southern Hemisphere, so that definitely qualifies as cool to me, as does the information about the landmaidens. Hope the project is going well.

    Stephen, thanks for the clarification. I probably should have phrased that part of the post differently. (I’ve been doing this for a long time and do know the origins of the term. I should have been clearer.) As you say, my point is more that “worldbuilding,” whatever the origins of the term, is something that all writers have to do. I was trying to illustrate a point with the term, trying to make clear that setting has to be constructed as painstakingly for non-speculative pieces as for fantasy or sf.

  • I’ve never felt that I’ve built a world in my fiction. It’s more like I’ve been given a backpack with a sack of flour, a bag of salt, and a pound of lard; and I have a small knife and a broken compass. That’s it.

    I begin my journey and write down what I see as I encounter each marvel. It is a fascinating trek, and what keeps me going is wanting see what’s around the bend in the road, through the mountain pass, in the back room of that abandoned cottage. The world grows as I travel, informing me step by step of what I need to expand my knowledge upon. The details develop through no conscious effort of my own–I find what I’m writing about by writing, I find where I am going by going there.

    I’ve discovered the most fascinating things about my characters’ cultures by simply listening to them tell someone else about them. As the author, I’m supposed to come up with these things, but my usual response is something more to akin to, “Wow, that’s interesting! I didn’t know that!”

  • Hepseba ALHH

    @ Wolf Lahti:
    I just wanted to say, your comment reminds me of reading Robin McKinley’s blog and hearing her describe figuring out characters’ names by listening for what other characters call them. Being able to explore your world that way sounds like a lot of fun, and I often wish I could do that with mine, but I think my brain definitely works more with trial-and-error building. Would this wheel fit? Eh. Not quite. How about sled runners instead? But I’m totally painting it chartreuse! Chartreuse is just too cool no matter what. …

  • Razziecat

    Very cool post. I want to add that too much worldbuilding not only delays the writing, sometimes it can drain so much of the excitement out of the project that the writing seems like anti-climax. While worldbuilding for one of my current projects, I discovered that knowing too many details ahead of time made things less interesting to me. I enjoy the process so much more when I learn as I go along, rather than knowing all the details beforehand.

    There was an interview I listened to with Lois McMaster Bujold, who commented that “the world comes into being as the story passes through it.” That’s what I’m aiming for now, although I definitely believe in having some foundation work done first, to build on.

  • Wolf, that’s a great description of the process. I know just what you mean — I’m constantly surprised by the things my characters do and say, the things I learn about them and their world as I work. It’s probably my favorite part of what I do. Thanks for the comment.

    Hep, as we often say, there is no right way to do any of this. Your process works for you, I’m sure.

    Razz, thank you. Same thing — everyone does this differently. Every creative process is different. I like that quote from Bujold, and though I work in a different way, I certainly can’t argue with her success. I do know just what you mean about losing the excitement. For me it’s speaking too much about a WIP — if I spend too much time working out what I’m GOING to do, when I get around to doing it, the passion isn’t there anymore.

  • David said In other words, you want the few details you do share to convey the hidden weight of all that you know about your world.

    The other night, Beatriz was over, and we were talking about garb for faire. She’s changed her character, and this new persona requires a lot of equipment to do her job. Bea has come up with great ideas for the pieces, but wearing it all was beginning to seem like a misery. Todd said, “You don’t have to wear it all at once. One or two pieces will do, and then you can change them later when you want people to see you differently.”

    And I realized that’s exactly what we have to do when building our worlds. Know everything, but don’t go walking out with all of it showing at once. 😀

  • Three novels, three different approaches. One, set in a desert environment took a lot of research into survivalism and a little … uhm … magic. The next, in your ‘standard’ middle European medieval setting took a lot of research into religions, societal structure, feudalism, etc. Book 3, the SHIFT one, has very little research – it’s discover the landscape and the politics as I go!

    I think the worldbuilding approach has to fit what it is you are trying to write. For the first two, my cast of characters’ identities are shaped by their culture and politics and landscape, and those same attributes are integral to the plot. In SHIFT, my characters pass through many different environments during their misadventures, and are only constrained by their own individual histories.

  • I too advocate the drip-drip method. But I’ve also been guilty of taking it too far. Dripping out details so slowly that the worldbuilding, though complete in my research and in my head, never makes it onto the page. That way leads to long revision sessions.

  • Tom G

    I have to join the chorus: Number 5, make it cool rules.

    Here’s something in my newest WIP (still in the research/worldbuilding stage):

    Savants are people who “crossed over” to another world via one of the space/time rifts opened during the Galactic Alignment, and then returned to our world. Their magic is weak, but they have one really powerful Talent, whether it’s healing or making it rain, no one does it better. Also, their pet becomes their familiar, connected telepathically. And sometimes the Savants really don’t want to hear what their pets have to say.

  • Misty, great analogy (and as always, I admire Todd’s wisdom). And I bet B looks fabulous in her garb.

    Lyn, thanks for a terrific comment. Your point is spot on: every book is different, and an approach to worldbuilding that works with one novel might not work at all with another. It’s not just that every author is unique; every project is unique. Again, thanks.

    Stuart, to take the drip analogy a bit further — it’s like an IV. Different books, and different sections of a single book, need to have different drip rates, different dosages. We don’t want to convey too much too quickly, but we also don’t want to leave too much unsaid. Thanks for the comment.

    Tom, yeah, cool is good. And your Savants definitely sound cool. Best of luck with the project.

  • A. R. Gideon

    I love talking to other writers about their worldbuilding process and seeing how different our minds work. I also believe that depending on the person, putting a time limit on worldbuilding can actually hinder the thought process. I’m a very analytical person, and because of that I have a very indepth world, with a full mythology (almost to the point that I could write a bible for it xD) a full language, customs laid out for all races, origins of location names, etc. I started off with just character profiles, and eventually after thinking about these characters for so long, they started to tell me the stories of their origins and histories. My story developed through the worldbuilding, and it would probably be nowhere near as good if I hadn’t spent such extensive time worldbuilding.

  • I love this post, seeing as worldbuilding has been going on in my brain since age thirteen.

    Really cool detail? I can’t resist jumping in on this one~

    My faeries needed a hideout/headquarters, so they built an elfpunk city named Once, where science and magic coexist spectacularly. And it’s in the subterraneon (but not underground–more in a different dimension) realm of the Time Fae. You know in the 12 Dancing Princesses when they go to an underground forest woodland with gold, silver and jeweled trees? Imagine a high tech magical city in the middle of that.

  • A.R., thanks for sharing your experience. As we often say here, there is no one right way to do any of this. I did my best to say that FOR ME a time limit is essential, because otherwise I will lose myself in the worldbuilding and never get to the writing. And so I give myself between four weeks and a couple of months. As I mentioned in the post, I’ve heard from lots of writers with that same problem. But you’re right — I can see that for some writers who take a different approach, imposing artificial time constraints on the process could be counterproductive. It sounds as though a fair amount of your worldbuilding happens as you write, and so perhaps we can agree that eventually people need to move to the actual writing. That was the point of number 2 — to get people writing so that they don’t get stuck in the prep work. Thanks again.

    DuskRose, thank you. Glad you liked the post. And wow — “Imagine a high tech magical city in the middle of that” — that sounds totally cool. Thanks for the comment.

  • Beatriz

    *blush* thanks, David. New alter ego will be appearing at Dragon Con. Mwahaha! I’m blaming ALL of it on Misty and Todd!

  • Looking forward to seeing her there, B (and you, too).

  • Worldbuilding is one of my favorite parts about writing genre fiction – I’m a bit of a research geek in the sense that I love assembling cool information. It can be a bit dangerous, as I’ve been known to lose several hours to researching the flora/fauna in tidepools, just for a sentence or two, but I think doing certain types of research is absolutely necessary for worldbuilding.

    Just a few of the research topics I can think of for my high fantasy were: horse husbandry, windmill anatomy, motte and baily castles, druids, lithography, period textiles, slate roofing tiles, the location of slate quarries, and camels. I also dredged up 10th grade information on punnet squares and dominant/recessive traits, because phenotype is extremely important. Not to mention the fact that I drew on my experiences living abroad to heighten the cultural themes.

    The basic concept part of world-building is fun – the alchemy of putting concepts together and transforming them into valuable creative material – but my favorite part is the next step: figuring how how that affects EVERYTHING in the story.

    Wonderful post, as always. 🙂

  • Thanks, Lauren. I remember once, while working on the first Winds of the Forelands book, I needed to learn something about wheelwrighting for what amounted to, literally, two lines of the book. I spent three hours on it, in part because I wanted to get it right, wanted to have that weight behind the lines to give them authenticity. But part of it was also that I got caught up in it, because, as you say, it can be dangerous. Given the breadth of topics that you’ve researched for your fantasy, it sounds like a fascinating story. Looking forward to seeing it in print one of these days.

  • This is great stuff, David. I’ve found that world-building is my favorite part of writing so far. Like you and other commenters, I’ve gotten lost following a trail of information. For me, it was learning about how glass is formed and when it started being used for windows, etc. That research was like dropping a pebble in a pool, starting with a single question that spread out in rings toward dozens of others. The search broadens partly because you start off not knowing what you don’t know.

    I think my affinity for world-building goes back to my days as a Dungeon Master. I would spend hours upon hours creating adventures for my friends to explore. I’m sure that’s why I chose Swords and Sorcery as my genre for fiction as well.

    As for a sample, my system of magic is called “vaetra,” and it is based on life force. Users of vaetra fall into a distinct hierarchy: Insensitives (normal people who have no ability), Sensitives (who can sense physical manifestations created by vaetra), Channelers (who can channel vaetra through focusing devices and create physical manifestations), Casters (who can use spoken incantations to create manifestations), and Smiths (who can create focusing devices). The levels are cumulative, so Smiths are also able to cast, channel, and sense vaetra.

    The complexity of the system will be largely hidden from the reader, of course. Basically, you are either a sorcerer (someone who can at least channel) or not. On the other hand, readers of my blog can learn more about vaetra if they want by reading “scrolls” written by the teachers of sorcery. I guess that’s my way of sharing some of the rest of the iceberg!

  • D.R., thanks for the comment. I have always been fascinated by glass and its uses; I can totally see how that would draw you in to more research. The magic system sounds cool, and when you sell your book (as I’m sure you will) having that “extra” information available on your website will be a nice touch publicity-wise.

  • Alan Kellogg

    In my case the world building is RPG connected, and uses three sourcebooks pretty much connected to RPGs and world building. The books, in no particular order are the…

    Pathfinder Reference Document (the basic mechanics for the Pathfinder RPG, available for downloading at the Paizo site.)

    Aria: Canticle of the Monomyth: Worlds (a book on putting together societies and cultures)

    World Builder’s Guidebook (a book on creating worlds for AD&D 2e which is easily converted to creating worlds for most any occasion. The fact it includes plate tectonics is a bonus)

    My WIP is known as Tales of the Wolf Folk Sea. Cool part? In my opinion, one of the cool things are the Tyr. A human race who invaded the land once held by the wolf folk (lycanthropes) after being driven from their ancestral lands by a pair of gnoll tribes, who were in turn driven from their ancestral lands by an alliance of dragons and goblins. (Amazing the ideas that spring from random dice rolls and seeking to make them work together with previous ideas you’ve had.)

    BTW, the Tyr language has no vowels, something I took from a real world language I forget the name of. Well, it has a vowel, but it’s an “r”, of which the language in question has something like 5 different versions of.

  • Alan that sounds like loads of fun. I was never much of a gamer and so haven’t spend as much time working through worldbuilding issues using rpg tools. But I know authors who do, and who swear by the method. I love the language ideas. I have only made one half-hearted attempt at developing a fantasy language, and I quickly realized that I have no aptitude for it at all. Sounds like you do, though. Have fun with it!

  • Alan Kellogg

    Thank you. At present I’m redoing one region, and re-reading a sourcebook on culture and society. It’s A Magical Society: Ecology and Culture from Expeditious Retreat Press, and it is chock full of advice on matching culture with environment and how environment shapes culture.

    Probably the best source books on world building are the various, and numerous, GURPS sourcebooks. Such as GURPS: Low Tech and Gurps: Steampunk, both by Bill Stoddard. Need help putting together a world dominating cabal for your next project, then GURPS: Cabal is for you. 🙂