NaNoWriMo Week Two: World-Building As You Go

Today marks the end of the 2nd week of NaNoWriMo2020, and I’m behind schedule by about 7,000 words if I want to reach the goal of 50,000 in a month. I would love to be able to do that, but as a college instructor teaching six classes this semester, that’s probably not going to happen with all that I need to grade. However, if I finish my first draft by the end of December, I’ll be happy. My plan is for a length closer to 85,000 words anyway, so if I get half that, I’ll consider this a good start. Just like in grad school, it’s easier to write when I don’t have classes to take or teach.

That said, as my youngest cat, Salem, begs to enter my office while I sit on my sofa and type this, I do want to talk a little bit about world-building, specifically world-building as you go along.

Depending on the genre, world-building will be a more-or-less significant and intensive portion of your preparation. Fantasy and Science Fiction require lots of world-building. These may require entire worlds with histories, cultures, races, politics, traditions, languages, and magical systems. Contemporary novels may require only minimal world-building. Yes, they still do require world-building, as you may find yourself creating fictional cities for your stories to inhabit or fictional companies where they work. Regardless of genre, an author has to build the world around their characters.

And any fantasy author or TTRPG GM who homebrews a setting knows just how time-consuming it can be to create a world from scratch. And it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that you have to have everything finished before you start writing or before you let players into your world. I used to be guilty of this belief, and I found myself unable to write unless I had enough lore on my world to fill the Silmarillion. As you can imagine, I accomplished nothing but lore-creation.

And then, about two years ago, while working on my homebrew D&D setting of Ivirune, I decided that all I needed to give my players was a summary of the world – roughly one general paragraph for each country that covered politics, climate, religion, economics, and general cultural attitudes. I might even pick a country in our world that had architecture and clothing similar to what I had in mind and say, “Think Germany, Thailand, Northern Italy, Russia, etc.” I also encouraged my players to help populate the world by telling me things about their hometown.

That’s great for TTRPGs, right? But what about fiction writing? Well, there’s a similar concept that I’ve found that works: World-Building As You Go. Now, if you’re a fantasy purist and a Tolkien loyalist, you may be ready to burn me at the stake for what I’m about to say:

You don’t need to have the entire world and its history in place before you start writing. Only prepare what you need for the first few chapters.

Still with me? Just think about it this way: if your hero never ventures into the Court of Chatmouspie, it does you no good to plan out their elaborate rituals for thirteen course meals used to honor visitors. Instead, the only aspects of your world that need detailed planning are those that will be important for the first few chapters.

As I started working on Liam’s Doom, my world-building involved the following items receiving detailed plans:

  1. The city of Butcher’s Bend, South Carolina. – Sam’s home base.
  2. The concept of the Veil Watchers first as a secret society who protect the secret existence of folkloric creatures and then as an almost extra-governmental organization with official sanction to act in emergency situations.
  3. The events that led to the signing of the Treaty and what the Treaty covered so that folkloric creatures could exist secretly in the modern world.

That’s all that I fleshed out in any level of detail before I started writing. As something emerged that required detail and planning, like the Irish village of Bannagh, I built that part of the world as it became necessary. Anything that I referenced that may become important later, I simply made a note of in my preparation and outlining journal so that I had those ideas in one place.

And I get it, world-building is fun. I love creating the world, detailing its history, its cultures, its geographies. I find that to be super engaging. As someone who has graduate degrees in linguistics and anthropology, I can go into a lot of detail when I world-build; however, I also know that once I start down a rabbit hole, I will likely see it through to its conclusion and get nothing else accomplished.

World-Building as I go helps mitigate those digressions so I can focus on writing. I build what I need for the story I’m telling, and then I add to the world new places, cultures, concepts, and structures as their details become meaningful. This also prevents the lore-dumping that 90’s fantasy novels were so often guilty of having. You know, the five to seven pages where the plot stops so the author can explain a particular custom, political structure, historical event, or meal in great detail? Some people enjoy those, but others just want to get on with the action. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more of the latter. And only building what I need – only presenting what is relevant to the plot of the story I’m currently writing – helps avoid all that lore-dumping.

I admit that this isn’t revolutionary advice, but it’s something that’s helped me to keep moving. Build what you need when you need it, and keep the story moving. That’s the advice in a nutshell.

What are you favorite and least favorite parts of world-building?