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