Settle in and stay awhile!
Other than “Where do you get your ideas?” the questions I’m asked most often are about worldbuilding. How do I do it? Do I plan everything out in advance or do it on the fly? How do I select certain details?
The truth is worldbuilding — and setting more generally — is the last piece I add to a short story or novel. This probably seems crazy when I’m writing a fantasy piece in particular, but it’s my process. I tend to focus first on dialogue and character. I simply don’t have the brain capacity to capture setting, plot, dialogue, character development, and theme all in one go.
That’s not to say I don’t do ANY worldbuilding as I go along. I do. I’ve mentioned on numerous occasions that I tend to write by the seat of my pants. I’ll have a scene or two in mind when I start a novel, but I don’t know the exact ending or most of the middle content. I often don’t even have the beginning down pat. I feel my way around until the story takes shape.
During that fumbling around, I discover pieces of the world where my story takes place. It’s a little like archeology; I unearth the world bit by bit. I sometimes add these pieces in as I go and will usually then add a comment in the margins so I know to pull this thread all the way through from beginning to end.
But my worldbuilding primarily comes during revisions. I look at the great big mess of a rough draft and see what I want to add. Usually, by the time I get to the end of a rough draft, I have a good idea of what my world looks like and what sensory details I’ll use to immerse the reader in my creation.
Just because worldbuilding is the final element doesn’t mean it’s the least important. I adore worldbuilding. I like immersing my reader in the world of my characters and letting them get a glimpse of what it must be like, whether that world is set on a lakeshore in Tanzania or in the fictional Elder Realm. It’s satisfying to add the details that will bring my story to life.
Since I’m a pantser, I’ve learned to keep a Scrivener document that details all the little ins and outs of my world. In real settings, it’s reminders of what stands out in the particular setting that I might want to highlight. It often includes foods, smells, and little details that would make someone from that area say, “Yes, that’s what it’s like.” In fantasy settings, I add everything from made-up curse words, to details about clothing and accessories, to how physical space is divided and used.
Each piece adds to the overall impression of the world I’m creating, and I hope to do it in such a way that the reader wants to go back over and over again.
The trickiest part of creating a setting is to make sure I’m not slowing down my story. It’s easy to throw in every detail I know about a particular place or world. It’s interesting to me, so it will be interesting to the reader, right?
It’s a balancing act to create a setting that gives the reader a sense of being there but doesn’t bore them with unnecessary details. Of course, each reader has different opinions on exactly how much that should be. But most writers eventually find the balance that works for them and their core readership.
So, when I get asked how I build my story world, I take the question seriously. But much like unearthing artifacts, I can’t always predict what I’ll find.