World-building writ small

When I see the term “world-building“, I usually think in the grand scale. And by that I mean maps depicting countryside hundreds if not thousands of miles across, vast mountain chains, entire river systems, cities, broad cultural swathes, and on and on. I expect most people probably think of it at that sort of level.

I’ve been world-building since high school, perhaps even before that. It would usually start with a map, generally a coastal map. In sharp pencil. There was usually lots of rubbing out and re-drawing. Those that lasted a while generally acquired a corresponding computer file, describing cities, races, countries, even languages and history on the more complete ones.

And then I started writing stories in them.

Not that there weren’t stories already. History is really nothing but stories; why cities are where they are and why they look like they do are all really just products of history. One of my worlds has some quite rich history about how a bunch of tribes had emigrated from one place to another, settling and changing as they moved, turning into nations. There were descriptions of how the various peoples differ in a number of ways.

Then I took it further. One corner of a more recent world was the setting for my 2009 NaNoWriMo novel. This was an interesting experience for a number of reasons, but for the purposes of this post, it showed me a whole new level of world-building that I’d more-or-less overlooked. I’d seen it in novels, of course, but I’d not done much of it myself before.

What I ended up doing as I write was creating little things on the fly. Villages, towns, cities, citadels, roads, forests, streets, houses, pubs, inns. It was kind of fun, actually, dreaming up all the details for the action to bounce off and characters to reference. After all, it was their world and they would not be in the habit of explaining everything. In a lot of ways, it had to “just work”.

That story isn’t finished, but not because of faulty world-building. Far from it. It was world-building of necessity, but it was a smaller scale than I had yet devoted much energy to. In fact, that was one of the big lessons about that writing exercise: world-building happens at a multitude of levels. And it was the kind that didn’t exist isolate of a story.

My current work-in-progress is a product of world-building. I wrote a short-story set in the edge of a medieval fantasy world I hadn’t spent much time designing. In fact, I’d spent just enough time designing it so that the central point of the story made sense. And whilst I was finishing it, I realized I had a whole new world that was begging to be explored.

Now I’m writing a longer piece following on from that short story. The prior piece was set in an desolate forest cabin. Quite a small stage, really. From that, I know where I want my protagonist to be taken by the bigger story; the big gamble I’ve taken is that he will be spending a lot of time in towns and cities. Now I’ve got a whole lot more world-building to do: at a city level. What do the houses look like? What are they made of? What is the street layout like? And that’s even before I fully consider how un-modern I make the society!

This is world-building in the small.

Although I rather doubt it’ll come through in detail, I’ve realized I need to design layout of the house he has his first meal in. In fact, I will probably be designing the layout for most of the houses and buildings in that part of the city. Why do I need to do this? Because it’s the kind of thing that gives a setting character and feel. This is why I’ve been researching medieval architecture. And I know I will have to do it again for a different city later in the novel.

It’s a learning exercise, but it’s a good learning exercise.


Filed under world-building, writing

2 responses to “World-building writ small

  1. This is a fascinating blog entry Wade. It is one of those moments where I’ve had a sudden realisating that I have ‘done something’ my entire life and not even realised it. I mean, I knew I was creating little worlds, having fun drafting maps, creating cultures with all their little ideocynrities, but I hadn’t thought of it from the story-telling perspective. I just had fun doing it, letting my brain puzzle out what makes a culture tick. Sometimes I used them in my stories, other times I didn’t.

    Out of curiosity, do you have a set process for this sort of thing? A special notebook for world building or even drafting paper for your maps? Just curious 🙂

    Great blog post. I loved it!

    • The process is a bit ill-defined. If I start with a map, it is almost always a pencil line on a sheet of A4 note-paper, usually a coast or a river or a mountain range. Then I start adding names, watching stylistic progressions across geography, and then developing cultures based on that. I’ve done that often enough that I can design a map in my head and actually skip the drawing-it-down step.

      As for the text, that’s always a computer file. I generally pick a “starting point” society and go from there, proceeding geographically around the map. It becomes a description of city states and nations, basically. I will have another file describing the different races and/or languages if that information doesn’t mesh with previous document. It’s only with the most recent ones that I’ve started making multiple little documents to describe things because my tablet makes that so much easier.

      I should probably put this into another post, but writers like David Eddings and Terry Brooks made the world-building so obvious – they have maps published in the front of their books! Which is why I read them in the first place.

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