Take Five: #15 of 30: Building new worlds

Take Five
Five-minute reads about writing
Nov. 3 - Nov. 30, 2010

Courtesy: Sasha Soren (Random Magic)
Twitter: @RandomMagicTour

#15 of 30: Building new worlds 

Guest author: Victoria Strauss
Visit Victoria Strauss: Official site
Twitter: @victoriastrauss
Facebook: Victoria Strauss
Find her books: Victoria Strauss Central (Amazon)
Read excerpts: YA fantasy titles
Advocacy: Writer Beware (SFWA)

An Impatient Writer's Guide to Worldbuilding:

* Establish your core principles or rules
* Use real-world models whenever possible
* Sketch out the terrain
* Break up research into manageable smaller projects
* Treat info as series of moveable units vs. fixed template
* Don't waste time developing surplus data 
* Once the framework is solid, feel free to wing it
I'm an impatient writer. I don't enjoy prep work, especially the kind of detailed preparation needed to create a believable imaginary world.

When I first started writing, my solution was to wing it. I'd take an idea and plunge right in, letting the story take me where it would and allowing the world to develop spontaneously.

The problem was that I constantly wrote myself into corners. I'd get to a point where I'd realize that what I wanted to happen couldn't happen, because of some social custom or rule of magic I'd set up earlier.

Over the years, I've worked out an approach that's a compromise between my natural hastiness and the need for consistency in the development of an imaginary reality.

Research and prep work takes perhaps three months, with several additional one- or two-week intervals when extra research is needed.

Before I do anything else, I make sure that I have a firm grasp of my world's core principles. But the details -- the shape and nature of the actual places my plot takes me -- aren't developed until I get to them in the course of writing.

I use real-world models whenever possible. I break the writing down into story chapters. In each section of the book, I work on portraying a different aspect of the culture or cultures related to that world.

I make rough maps of the terrain, buildings and cities that my characters will be encountering. Nothing fancy, just enough to keep myself oriented so that I won't describe something as being on the left side of a courtyard and then, in the next chapter, say it was on the right. 

If there's a lot of travel in the book, then the distances traveled, as well as the time frames involved, need to be plausible.

Before beginning work on each section, I pause for three or four days to sketch out settings and customs and other necessary details.

Notes in hand, I organize information into a form that I can use right away. Rather than making outlines or enumerating facts, I create little essays, as if I were writing entries for an encyclopedia. It’s easier for me to discipline myself to this kind of prep work in small periodic doses than in large do-it-all-at-once sessions.

I like the freedom of not being locked in to a specific template from start to finish. It gives me a sense of discovering my world as I journey deeper into it, and allows room for inspiration.

Many of my best details are things I probably couldn't have envisioned at the start of the book, springing not just from my understanding of the basic principles of the reality I've created, but from the context of what I've already written.

This results in a fair bit of world-building on the fly -- which, because it takes place during the actual process of writing, does slow me down, but still works better for me than spending a lot of initial time developing things I may not need.

Some fantasy writers feel that it's important to work out every aspect of their invented worlds and cultures, whether or not they figure into the plot. But for me, this is clutter. You can write a novel set in Massachusetts even if you don't know much about Illinois.

One of the ways I guard against the impulse to overstuff is to develop in depth only those areas of my world required by my story.

For instance, in one book, a particular kingdom is important because it's home to a large community of expatriates driven out by a rebellion -- but none of the book's action actually takes place in that kingdom, so I didn't bother naming cities or deciding on geographical features.

But because I’ve made sure I have a good grasp of the basic ground rules of my setting, I can easily invent more details when I need them.

The time spent in initial, broad-premise preparation gives me the consistency I need to produce a believable and fully-developed world, while the working out of specific details as I go allows me the flexibility I crave.

Best of all is the element of discovery, building a world this way preserves a certain amount of spontaneity within the context of all my careful planning, leaving room for flashes of inspiration. 

Bonus: The SFWA has kindly provided this list of questions that might be helpful to you in creating your own fantasy settings: Fantasy Worldbuilding Checklist

From author Victoria Strauss' article, 'An Impatient Writer's Guide To Worldbuilding'
Also featured in: Arte Six
Used with permission.

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