With only twelve days before Nanowrimo start, there isn’t much time to finish building your world and planning your novel, so you have to focus on the important details. Creating a map for your world–anywhere from a basic map establishing cities and borders to a complete road map–and a fact sheet to bring together all your knowledge of the world you’ll be writing your novel in is a great way to figure out what you need to know to begin your novel without hours of hard labour. The fact sheet also provides you with a place to put notes when you discover new things about your world. Today I’m going to walk you through the process of creating a bare-bones world with these tools.
Mapping is incredibly easy, though you can make it as complex as you like. I always do a simple map on graph paper. Trace out odd shapes–too round or square is odd for land–and turn them into continents and islands. Start by drawing out the physical features of the lands where your story takes place. Use upside down Vs for mountains and draw blue lines and circles for lakes and rivers. For forests, draw small triangles or other simple tree shapes. This is a rough map, so don’t worry about how it looks.
Now, create borders for your kingdoms and label each one. Mark your towns with dots and your cities with stars or other symbols. Castles, bays and docks should be given special markings as well. Drawing in a few roads to give yourself a guideline for how people travel between cities is a good idea, but don’t worry about a complex map with every trail named at this point–unless, of course, you’d prefer to do that.
You might also want to create more local maps, or if you’re working in a real life setting find maps on the internet. Local maps are easy to create as long as you establish symbols for special buildings such as libraries or schools. Of course, real artists can always draw the buildings in more detail so each one stands out, but that’s a lot of time you probably don’t have before November first, so don’t worry about it. You can make pretty maps later; right now what you need is functional.
Creating a Factsheet
For every world I create–and depending on the world, sometimes every culture and even every character–I create a factsheet. This compiles everything I know about the world through writing exercises and brainstorming in one convenient place that I can easily refer to while working on my novel.
Expect that your factsheet will likely be more than one sheet. Odds are as you write down every fact you can think of, you’ll discover more and realize you need to answer more questions. Writing down everything you know about the world makes your notes more accessible and gives you an idea of what you still need to figure out. Armed with that knowledge, you can spend your last few days of preparation filling the holes in your knowledge.
Write down everything you can think of, even if it doesn’t seem right. You can always cross it out later. It’s also a good idea to leave a few blank sheets at the end of your list. This way, you won’t have to squish your notes together or go hunting for paper when you discover something new about your world.
This is also a good time to go back and create factsheets for each of the characters you’ve established and to create a similar sheet with a point form outline of your plot. None of these sheets need to be detailed. Spontaneity in writing is often a good thing, at least in the first draft. Don’t get too attached to these facts either; keep a red pen ready in case you find out some of them aren’t true.
While these simple exercises won’t build a detailed world all on their own, they’ll give you a basic framework from which to build your novel. By the end you should know who lives where and have a good idea of what life is like on your world. That’s the most important thing–after all, half the fun of writing your first draft is the things you discover along the way. And half the fun of Nano is flailing around in a world you don’t yet understand, along with all the other participants.
Today’s author is a Nanowrimo veteran who saw my call for guest posts and answered almost immediately. I’m very proud to present her post, Building Your World as part of my Nanowrimo Blogaganza. I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I did!
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So you’ve decided (or are thinking about) National Novel Writing Month this year?
But what will you write about? More important, where will your story take place? Will you sail the Spanish Main? Will you inhabit the foggy gaslit streets of Victorian London? What about a spaceship, talking to aliens from another planet? Wanna write about werewolves and cavemen? Or will you write about something happening in today’s world? There are a ton of ideas, and only you can decide where you want to start.
Setting isn’t the only question of worldbuilding; it’s the beginning. While a writer might start with setting, the writer has to get more specific…creating the characters and streets and neighborhoods and cultural issues that their protagonist will interact with. For example, Harry Potter might be set in a British suburbia and boarding school, but the characters and magic and owls and spells and shopping and all of the rest make up the world itself. Without that setting, the wizarding world would have been an entirely different milieu.
The first question to consider is what kind of books you gravitate toward as a reader. If you like steampunk, and love the Victorian era, then do you want to set your story in a world you are familiar with as a reader? Same goes for modern day stories, historical novels, science fiction stories, or epic fantasy. If you want to create your own world, then what do you like/dislike about the worlds in your preferred genre?
Starting a list of what you like or don’t like in the books you enjoy is a great starting place. Why don’t you like them? Why do you like them? What would make them better? What makes them yours?
The second question is about that story. Sometimes the story you’re trying to tell demands that it be told in a certain world. It’s hard to imagine a legal thriller taking place in a speakeasy or a topless bar; it rather demands a courtroom setting, unless your story harkens back to an Old West kind of trial (which might actually have happened in a saloon). Likewise a story about a kid getting bullied in school; the world itself is probably the school that you’ll be setting your story in. The worldbuilding comes in when you start to determine what kinds of things are most important to the characters based on that setting (a good example here is the cootie-like transfer of the Cheese Touch from DIARY OF A WIMPY KID).
Unless your story specifically requires a certain world, like those two examples, you’ve got a lot of room. It’s okay to have some basics of the world. It’s okay to go ahead and plan out all the details of your world, from the flora and the fauna to the landscape and the rules of magic in the days leading up to NaNoWriMo, but remember that new ideas may come to you as your tell your story in the highly creative world of furious novel scribbling that happens in Nov ember. Plan your world, but be flexible enough to go in a new direction if the story demands it.
It’s worth noting as well, that some people do become bogged down in planning the details of their world so much that they never actually get the novel written, especially in science fiction and fantasy. It’s also more than okay to wait until you get further into the story, after NaNo starts, to flesh things out…just don’t stop writing to get it done! It’s okay to move your story from a fishing village in northern Alaska to a surf shop in Hawaii…just keep writing because you can go back and fix it later if it’s working better to keep your story moving forward!
Another tip to keep yourself from getting too bogged down in details when writing is to leave yourself a quick note as to what you need to research later, and keep moving with the plot of the story. For example;
“Natasha slipped on her (LOOK UP PERIOD SPECIFIC SHOES) before she ran down the hallway in the Winter Palace, hoping to find someone, anyone, who could tell her where her best friend, Anastasia, had gone. The guards, in their drab (LOOK UP APPROPRIATE UNIFORM COLOR FOR REVOLUTIONARY GUARDS) shirts, took one look at her fine clothes and placed her under arrest.”
This example could be a story in a Russian Revolution melodrama; it could be a prologue in a historical thriller. It could even become a historical fantasy. Either way, there’s enough hints in there to keep the author grounded in the writing of the story, and still provide notes that jump out (as well as add to word count) to remind the writer what needs specific research down the road.
There’s no way to predict what small detail you might need before you start writing the story…so just write. Figure out what you need to have happen, and don’t be afraid to make notes about what details your world needs to be fully fleshed out before you’re done.
In short, if you first figure out a general idea of the setting you’re after, and what kind of story you wish to tell, you’re well on your way to building the world you need to tell it in. You can then use the time leading up to November to do any preliminary research or brainstorming that you might need to get started…just don’t lose yourself in the black hole of constant research in place of actually writing the story.
Addie J. King is an attorney by day and author by nights, evenings, weekends, and whenever else she can find a spare moment. She is a five time NaNoWriMo participant, and a third year Municipal Liaison in Ohio. Her short story “Poltergeist on Aisle Fourteen” was published in MYSTERY TIMES TEN 2011 by Buddhapuss Ink, and an essay entitled, “Building Believable Legal Systems in Science Fiction and Fantasy” was published in EIGHTH DAY GENESIS; A WORLDBUILDING CODEX FOR WRITERS AND CREATIVES by Alliteration Ink. Her novel, THE GRIMM LEGACY, is available now from Musa Publishing.
Worldbuilding means different things for different authors. For traditional fantasy authors, it involves creating a whole new world and figuring out as much as possible about the people who live there and the world itself. For urban fantasy authors, it means figuring out how this version of Earth is different from our own. For mystery and contemporary romance authors, it means researching or developing the town where a story takes place. For science fiction authors, it often means creating not just new worlds but the technologies to get a species from one world to the next.
The meaning of worldbuilding also varies from author to author. Some authors develop only the parts of their world that their characters will at some point be in. Others like to develop every corner of their world. Some only figure out the history of the last few generations; others build back story going back for thousands of years.
Whatever your wordlbuilding looks like, there are some questions you should answer as a bare minimum. These questions will help you figure out your world and your society, laying a basic framework which will help you write your novel.
1. What are the similarities between your story’s world/society and your own? These things will help ground both you and your readers. Figuring out these similarities also gives you an idea of what your world looks like.
2. What cultures are interacting in your story’s world/society? Knowing the names of the most important cultures in your story and how they get along will help you figure out subplots and add a layer of realism to your work, no matter your genre.
3. How religious are people in your world/society? If most people in your world/society are extremely religious, this will have a huge effect on the laws. Knowing how important religion is to the people in your story also helps you figure out how much you develop your world/society’s religion. The effect of religion on laws and society is massive both in our world and in any other, and is important to consider.
4. How do people in this world/society treat marriage and procreation? Knowing whether or not marriage is important–or even exists–in a given place will tell you a lot about the society. Figuring out how your society feels about children both in and out of the family unit will give you fodder for subplots and a deeper understanding of the world/people you’ll be working with this November.
These are just a few of the questions you should ask yourself when building your world/society. There are dozens of other resources on the web to help you build your world such as the 30 Days of Worldbuilding website, and over the next week you can expect to hear a bit more on the topic here–and on Friday, I’ll be walking you through creating a map and a fact cheat sheet for your world. In the meantime, get to work answering these questions–and as many others as you can think of–about the world and society in which your novel takes place.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a short story entitled Birth of a Vampire. It takes place in Scotland, around 700 A.D., as the last of Paganism was fading from the country. It’s the first of several stories meant to travel with the vampire-Thomas-around the world and through the ages. This series of short stories is going to be my most research-heavy project yet. I’m not dreading all the legwork though-I’m excited, and I’m getting new inspiration every couple of pages.
I believe that everyone should study history, especially writers. History is a study of humanity, showing our patterns and our ways of thinking. More than the names and dates, the people and the places, it says a lot about humanity as a whole. And basic human nature hasn’t changed much-look at how today’s terrorists die readily for their religion, and then look at the Children’s Crusades, where thousands died on the road to ‘save the holy land’.
For fantasy writers, many of us base our worlds-however loosely-off of historical times and places. We should do the legwork to find out what those places were really like before we take them and change them. And history is one of the greatest places to find new story ideas. Human history is full of happy moments and sad moments; it is full of great, liberating revolutions and dirty, oppressive secrets. Reading the bloody histories of our own countries can help us build new ones with suitably bloody history.
If you’re not working on a world or a novel-length project right now, you should study history anyway. Knowing history can only help you in the long run. It’s helpful in a debate, a great conversation piece, and it generally makes you feel smarter. You can study your own country, and it might be fun to try to trace your ancestry. You’ll probably learn a surprising amount about history from the story of your own family. It’ll help you feel more grounded in who you are, give you something to be proud of. (Or not.)But the best part is that history can be pretty inspirational, and you might stumble into a literary gold mine, full of amazing story ideas.
During my research, I’ve already had to stop to write notes for one character and one story, which looks like it’ll want to be novel-length. If you’re not doing research for a specific project, just for your own enjoyment, then you can jump right into a new story. If it is research for a specific project, then you’ll have something new ready and waiting for you when you finish. Just be careful not to start an entirely new project and abandon the old one.
Where to start? In the country where your story takes place, or in your country of origin, or maybe just someplace that interests you. So far most of my research has been in Scotland-where clan Gunn hails from-and the Byzantine empire, the Eastern half of the Roman empire. I’ve got a book about historical England and tomorrow I’m going to start researching early Spain. I’m going to share a couple of my links with you, and if you have any good links about the history of Spain, please do share.
~Heart O Scotland This has been my primary internet resource for the history of Scotland. It’s almost shameful how little I knew about Scotland three days ago, but this site has a pretty good overview of Scottish history and is pretty reliable.
~National Library of Scotland This page has listings for all the old counties of Scotland, and if you click the links you’ll find literally hundreds of maps of Scotland throughout the ages.