Today, I continue the series of posts on worldbuilding that I began last week. First, though, I am very pleased to announce that Tor and I have agreed to terms on a contract for two more Thieftaker books. Thieves’ Quarry, the second book in the Thieftaker sequence, will be coming out next July. And now I can say with confidence that it will be followed by City of Shades in 2014 and Dead Man’s Reach in 2015. So, yay!
Okay, so back to worldbuilding. And let me begin where I left off last week, with what may well be the most important point I made about the process I go through to create the settings for my fantasies. None of the discreet tasks I mentioned last week (map making, creating relationships, coming up with myths and religions, and building magic systems) is actually discreet; rather, it all happens together, in a chaotic and exhilarating mish-mash of inspiration. The word I used last week was “synergy,” and that really does describe what happens when my worldbuilding is going well; the various aspects of the process inform one another so that the creation feels seamless. This is, of course, a good thing. As I say, it makes for an exciting burst of creativity.
But there are also dangers in such a heady experience, and they are reflected in so many of the comments and questions that showed up in the comments section below my previous post. Worldbuilding tends to consume time, not because it is necessarily so time-intensive, but rather because once we start doing it, we’re never sure when to stop. Many of us find it really fun (God knows I do) and so we don’t necessarily want to stop. But more to the point, building a world is inherently complex. No detail seems too small, particularly because so many of the details are so cool. Hence, we often don’t know when to say, “Okay, enough. I’ve got as much material as I need.” And since eventually we need to write the book, this can be a problem.
This is why I usually begin my worldbuilding with a series of questions. (And by the way, after writing two Thieftaker books, I can tell you that this also works really well for research, which I tend to view as an adjunct of worldbuilding.) Some of the questions I ask are quite broad: How does the magic system work? What is the level of technology in the world? How many religions are there and what are the relationships among them? Other questions are smaller, more contained, though no less important: How did the current ruler of country X come to power? Where did the name of my main character’s home village come from? What are the important holidays and milestones in a typical calendar year?
Obviously, the questions are unlimited, and so it may seem that asking questions doesn’t do much to get us closer to making this a finite process. But for most of us, that worldbuilding synergy also exists within a larger synergistic relationship with plot and character. And even though worldbuilding is usually done at the very beginning of a project, most of us start our work with at least a general idea of what the book is going to be about, and where the narrative needs to go to get our story started. Keeping those plot points in mind helps us recognize the contours of the project, and gives us a starting point for determining which questions to ask.
For example, as I was doing my initial worldbuilding and research for Thieftaker, I knew that, among other things, I needed to know when streetlights were first used in Colonial Boston (1774, as it turns out, so the streets Ethan Kaille frequents at night are unlit — important information), how the Congregationalist churches that dominated the New England spiritual landscape of the 18th century referred to their clergy and expressed their faith, and who were the representatives of the Crown living in Boston in 1765. As I say, there were lots of other things I needed to know, and I had questions written down for just about all of them. But as you would imagine, I encountered way, WAY more information on a whole host of topics unrelated to my story. Having my questions prepared allowed me to filter out that informational noise, and focus on the stuff that mattered to my story. Similarly, when I was worldbuilding for the Forelands and Southlands books, I sometimes found myself making up histories and mythologies that touched on parts of my world that did not bear on the narrative I had outlined. It took a good deal of will power, but when I realized this, I dropped those histories, figuring that if the story changed and it turned out that I needed them, I could always come back to them.
Which brings me to the other important point I need to make about knowing when to stop: There is no rule, written or unwritten, that will keep you from going back to your worldbuilding if somehow you find that you haven’t done enough. I take great pride in my worldbuilding; I’m thorough, I come up with lots of good details, histories, mythologies, etc. And yet, I would say that fully 25% of the worldbuilding I do comes while I am writing the book. Because as much as I work on preparing myself with incisive, comprehensive questions, I have never been able to anticipate every worldbuilding need.
And so ultimately, the answer to the question that so many of you asked — When do you know that you have enough? — is simple. You don’t. You do as much as you can to answer those initial questions, you satisfy your own curiosity about key points, and then you start to write. Because worldbuilding is not an end in and of itself. It is a tool. The goal is to write a book. And if you find that you need to fill in some worldbuilding blanks along the way, so be it. That’s actually a good thing. It means that your story is alive, that it is growing and becoming more complex and interesting as you work on it.
Next time (two weeks from today) I will continue this series with a post about writing your worldbuilding into you book. I’ll touch on language, themes, data dumps, and other related issues. But for now, let’s discuss this stuff. To start, come up with three questions about your new world that you feel you have to answer before you move on to writing. What is most important to you about your world?David B. Coe http://www.DavidBCoe.com http://www.dbjackson-author.com http://magicalwords.net