There is a certain god-like satisfaction in creating a world. With ink and paper, you can breathe life into a setting that would otherwise exist only in your mind. This past week I’ve been doing just that.
Worldbuilding has been a favorite hobby of mine for as long as I can remember. I was around 4 years old when I first imagined a world outside my own. This became obsessive as I entered my pre-teens. I produced reams of maps and notes, and soon, I wanted to do something with them. That is how I discovered writing—a way to inhabit my beloved worlds.
As I mentioned in last month’s writing update, I’m starting a linked collection entitled Stories from the Infinite City. While I had scraps of notes here and there, I lacked the substance to create an immersive setting.
China Miéville is fast becoming my favorite genre author. His “fantastic” worlds are so vivid, so real, you feel like you’re there. In an interview, he said:
I spend a lot of time working on stuff that may or may not actually find its way into the novel, but I know a lot more about the world than makes it into the stories.
I realized my scraps and thoughts were not enough. I needed to flesh out every part of this world, achieve even a modicum of Miéville’s creativity. Author V.E. Schwab describes worldbuilding as either “door writing” or “window writing.” The former refers to opening the door to the world for your readers versus having them look through a window at it. Well, I plan to throw the door wide open.
Unlike the fantasy worlds I created as a youth, the setting of Stories from the Infinite City—known as Cancastle—is quite peculiar. There are no continents, no planets, just a plane of unknown size. All the worldbuilding techniques I used back in the day wouldn’t work.
I used to start with a map and then the deities of the world before fleshing out the various nations and races. Nothing in that previous sentence pertains to Cancastle. So, I invented a new method that seems to be working so far.
After sifting through a half-dozen sites on worldbuilding, I devised a list of 25 categories. These include everything from Geology to Religion to Architecture to Technology, et cetera, et cetera. With these listed in a Word document, I began the brainstorming process to fill them out.
Over the course of the week, I expanded the document from 1 page to 15 pages (and growing). I did so two ways. The first involved reading these notes over and over again. Each time I looked over a category, new thoughts would spill in, almost faster than I could write them.
The second came when I noticed that ideas were constantly popping into my head. So now, everywhere I go, I carry a spiral-bound notebook to scribble these down. I’ve discovered that most of these ideas come while I’m reading, which means interrupting my book every 5 minutes or so. Urgh.
There are certainly a lot of difficulties with this unique world. One of the biggest hurdles was figuring out how to feed the millions of inhabitants in Cancastle. After all, there are no animals or plants in this city, just a lot of fungi. What do they write on? What do they build with? What is their clothing made of?
Technology has also been a hurdle—especially for someone as inept as me when it comes to science. A lot of my early notes place Cancastle in a steampunk setting. But as I fleshed it out, I realized that it fit into a relatively obscure subgenre called dieselpunk, though there are many aspects of the world that stray from this.
The effort I put into worldbuilding my infinite city has not been as satisfying as it has in the past. Maybe because I had a (self-imposed) deadline. Or perhaps I pushed myself too hard rather than wait for it to grow organically. But I know my collection will be a lot stronger because of my labors.
4 thoughts on “Building a World”
I enjoyed this peek behind the scenes at how you are developing your craft. I agree that worldbuilding is one of the most important skills for an author of fiction. Some of the modern novels I’ve enjoyed most are those that immerse me in someplace totally different yet firmly believable. Good to carry a notebook around, you never know when your best idea will pop into your head. When I visited Jack London’s ranch in California, the cottage where he wrote included a spartan little bedroom with a cot, above which hung a clothesline on which he would pin note cards bearing ideas he had jotted after awakening in the night.
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It’s always amazing when an author can immerse you like that. The book I’m reading right now, PERDIDO STREET STATION, is probably the best worldbuilding I’ve ever read. To the point that I sometimes forget I’m on Earth.
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