The Long-Term Approach to World-Building

Writers who use contemporary settings often set their stories in places they've lived, because they know the little back-alley details that make those places come to life. They populate their stories with people they know, or alternate versions of themselves; look at how many Stephen King books are centered on novelists from Maine.

Historical fiction writers have the treasure trove of human history to delve into. They can cherry-pick people, places and happenings to fill their stories. Today, writers can even take virtual tours of places they've never been using Google Maps, or learn a foreign land's history on Wikipedia. Wherever and whenever a story is set, there's a ton of information on it at a writer's fingertips.

...unless you set your stories in the future, or in mythical lands that never existed. We always hear that you should write what you know, but that old adage takes on a very different meaning for fantasy and sci-fi writers.

Spec-fic authors must engage in thorough world-building. For every fact a contemporary fiction author can look up, spec-fic writers must invent one. (Like this quote? Click here to tweet it!)

It's a tall order even for the most imaginative person. I'm often asked how to go about world-building, and unfortunately there's no simple answer. I like to think I'm pretty imaginative, but the truth is world-building is a long, slow process of compiling tidbits of information, most of which will never see the light of day. But there are a few general strategic tips I can give that have made my world-building experience a little more fruitful.

Take it slow.

Don't sit down to your NaNoWriMo project on November first and start trying to build a fictional universe. Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither was Narnia or Ringworld. These things take time, and it's best to start long before you ever try to set a story in the worlds you create.

You won't be able to flesh out a setting all in one go. As James Scott Bell would say, you have to send it to "the boys in the basement". Even when your conscious mind is preoccupied, your subconscious never stops working. Let your world-building goals stew in your head, and allow tasty morsels to bubble to the surface a few at a time. One way to do this is to...

Keep a world-building journal.

I use Google Keep, but Evernote or a good old-fashioned Moleskine notebook might be the solution for you. Use whatever you're comfortable with, just make sure it's something you have handy all the time. You can't expect to keep a day's worth of ideas in your short term memory while your idea journal waits on your desk at home. You're going to forget something.

I have a terrible memory. I always have ever since I can--or can't--remember. For most of my life it was just a cross I had to bear; people were always getting hurt because I forgot something they wanted me to remember. Understandably, they thought I didn't care about their lives.

Now, I've outsourced most of my memory to Google Calendar, Keep, Mindly, and Any.Do. And every time some setting tidbit comes to my attention, I write it down. Sometimes these are ideas that come to me unbidden and without method--something the boys in the basement send up as a surprise. Other times, it's something I've been trying to think of for days. Still other times, I'll experience some piece of sensory information--a smell or an odd sound--that piques my interest. I keep a "Sensory Info" log where I dump all this stuff, and over time I gradually digest it into my setting notes.

Just today, for example, I noticed how the crawfish chimneys in my yard have become so thickly clustered that the dirt looks like brown cauliflower. Now that the ground is dry, they crunch underfoot like gravel. You can expect to see a description of that phenomenon in one of my stories some day. Only they won't be crawfish, they'll be some strange alien bugs.

Which leads me to my next strategy:

Tweak real-world details.

Just because you're a spec-fic author doesn't mean the wealth of information available to the modern human is useless to you. If you read or hear something interesting in the news, think about how a similar event might play out in the future, or the mythic past. How would the latest mass shooting have been different in the middle ages? In a police-state future, what additional hoops would shooters have to jump through to wreak their sad revenge on society?

If you see an object or place that catches your interest, think how it might be different in a spec-fic setting. Does the neighborhood coffee shop have a reason to exist in Middle Earth? If so, what would be on the menu?

Read history, and think how certain leaders would have acted differently in different time periods. How would World War II have been fought if Hitler was an evil wizard, or a genocidal AI?

Everything in today's world can be useful to you, if you get in the habit of asking yourself the right questions.

Set all your stories in a single fictional universe

This might be considered cheating, but it works for me. All my stories are set in the same universe, even if that fact is never advertized to the reader. Ideally, the reader isn't required to know that.

The main reason I do this is because I really admire writers--like Isaac Asimov or Frank Herbert--who developed a consistent story universe that spans multiple books or series. But as I've fleshed the setting out more and more, I've realized that it also makes it easier to build settings for individual stories. With an ever-growing story world, I never have to start from scratch, and every story adds its own cache of details to the whole. Keeping stories in a single universe might sound hard, but I've actually found it's easier than going back to the drawing board every time.

Another fringe benefit of this strategy is that when I flesh out one little corner of my story universe, it will occasionally throw light on some other corner that I never intended to discover. Developing the setting for a story often means coming up with imaginary histories, and sometimes those histories can inspire other stories, unexpectedly link up with other works in progress, or become new stories in their own right.

The one downside to this strategy is that I actually have too many ideas. I will surely die before I see all of them put to good use. But...so what? Even if some of this stuff never sees the light of day, its existence still makes my job easier. My own awareness of the story universe deepens and informs the little tidbits I show to readers. So long as I don't make my imaginary history a prerequisite for enjoying my stories, there's no harm.


Whether or not the above strategies are helpful to you, one thing is for sure; world-building is not a quick or easy job. It's going to take a lot of time and effort, so it's best to adopt a long-term strategy and not expect fast results. But if you're patient, and you pay attention, you can create a world as real--or more so--than anything in contemporary fiction.