Okay, birthday is done, but I’m still on the road. Time for another Flash Writing Tip. Today’s topic: Worldbuilding!
The object of worldbuilding for writers of speculative fiction is really no different from the goal of mainstream writers setting up their real-world settings. We want to create places that come to life for our readers, that have depth and richness and texture. We want our readers to open our books and be transported, be it to Pern or Middle Earth, modern New York or 1760s Boston.
The thing is, when spec fic writers create our worlds whole-cloth from our imaginations, we have a far greater challenge. If I tell you that a book I’ve written is set in, say, contemporary Phoenix, that immediately conjures up certain images for you: heat, traffic, desert wilderness surrounding a sprawling urban oasis. But when I tell you that I set a book in Aneira of the Forelands, you don’t know anything about it, and can’t even begin to envision what it might be like. So my job is to make that place real to you as quickly as possible.
What factors go into creating a new world of this sort? Well, we need a landscape — that’s why so many fantasy and sf books have maps in the front matter. But we also need history, religion(s), cultural traditions, societal customs, myths and legends, economic systems, sources of food and material for clothing, and much more. There are countless factors that define a culture and a civilization, and all of them are necessary in worldbuilding.
I’m often asked what I do to make my worlds come to life for myself as well as for my readers. And one of the best answers I can give is this: I write short fiction about my world. As I develop my histories and my mythologies, I write short stories about certain aspects of them. When I work on my map and name different cities or landscape features, I will write short stories about how these places got their names. As I think of important figures in my world’s past, I write about some aspect of their lives.
Some of the short stories become good enough that I can sell them. Most of them don’t. But all of them help me discover the world about which I’m writing. Even if the stories themselves never see light of day, the things that I learn about my world while writing them come to inform my larger projects. And really, that’s the point. The better I know my world, the more fully I will be able to convey their flavor and character to my readers.
So as you’re worldbuilding, take some time to write stories or even fractions of stories about the places you’re creating. Even if these stories never wind up being published, they will make the rest of your work more genuine and more exciting. And you might even learn something about your world that you hadn’t known before.