A Whole New World - by Janet Raye Stevens

"One of my challenges [as a writer] is to make sure that I'm giving the reader details that the character cares abut rather than details that I care about. I'd say that's the key to world-building."    -Jess Anderson 
Well, that’s the end of my post this month—Jess Anderson said it all for me and in far fewer words than I would use.
See you in June!
Ha, okay, guess I’ll stick around a bit longer to elaborate on this month’s theme: world-building. Every author world-builds in their own way, as you will discover reading what each of us posts on YAOTL this month. And there is no right way, as long as the author creates a world readers connect to, care about, and believe in.
When I start a project, I begin with an idea, a setting, an inciting incident (and sometimes a wow finish), and of course, the characters. Vague, I know. Even vaguer when I tell you I’m a committed “pantser,” with no idea where I’m going to end up when I sit down to write. This confession probably just gave every plotter reading this the vapors, but that’s the way I roll.  
So, here I am, sitting at my computer (a big, ol’ old fashioned desktop, mind you!), building my world. The setting comes to life as my characters take shape and the plot unfolds from my fingertips. This is where pantsing gets tricky, because—research.
Whether you’re writing an action-adventure set in a sci-fi universe or a contemporary story about high school friends falling in love, you’ve got to know stuff about where you are. People, places, things, slang, customs, laws, mores, clothing, no clothing, money, castes, foods and on and on need to be looked into.
Whether you start off with your research at the beginning of a project, like a plotter, or, if you’re a pantser like me and end up with piles of files, a slew of sticky notes, and twenty seven 8x10 color glossy pictures with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each when you’ve completed your manuscript, that research is key to finding those details that will, hopefully, make the reader care about your world and characters.
Something's fishy here!
Our friend Google is a great starting point for any kind of world you’re creating, even for a Sci-Fi. Google is the quickest and easiest way to dig up strange plants and flowers, names for moons and planets, odd and unusual animals or fish (have you seen the amazing creatures that swim in our oceans?). It’s also great for finding names and thingamabobs other authors have used in their works, so you can avoid repetition and ensure your six-legged camel-like creature with the snaggle tooth is unique.
Museums and libraries are great places to find details for your world. For example, museum paintings and other artwork can give you a glimpse into Renaissance fashion and customs, libraries will give it context with scholarly works you can access for free. Local libraries are a treasure trove of town reports, street directories, and newspaper clippings that may seem mundane, but provide insight into daily life of another era. Plus, libraries (and local history museums) sometimes have odd and wonderful artifacts you can see up close and personal.  
Who knew you could find a wreath of human hair at the library?
And don’t forget primary sources. My stepfather was a collector of all things important and trivial, ranging from the hoops his great-grandmother wore under her skirts in the 1870s to every issue of Mac World Magazine ever printed. He also kept a bunch of newspapers from the 1940s, his WWII Signal Corps uniforms, and Chinese money from when he was posted there. I write mystery set in WWII, so you can imagine how valuable it is to be able to see and touch these materials.

May 1945, and jobs for women were plentiful
Which brings me to another and most valuable primary source—people. If your protagonist is a kid whose dad/mom is a cop, talk to a cop, see how he/she moves and speaks and how they relate to their own kids.
I talked to my stepfather a lot about his war experiences, and will never forget his story of being put up in a hotel in Miami during basic training and how, each morning, a truck would back up to the patio door and fresh oranges would spill off. He could still remember the smell. I haven’t used it yet in a story, but will someday.  
Well, I’ve sort of run on, so I’ll close with this final bit of world-building advice:
"I'm not going to tell you how to start a bug-powered vehicle, I'm just going to put you inside one with somebody who knows how, and send you off on a ride." - Kameron Hurley
That means, use what you learn wisely, but sparingly. Don’t overwhelm your reader with facts and figures and dates and details, or they’ll check out. Give them the details they care about, that engages them, and makes them eager to strap in for that ride to a whole new world!


  1. Enjoyed this. I find dreams, particularly nightmares are good settings fodder, but I'm writing more short horror/mystery than anything else now.

  2. Ooh, dreams--so true! I get a lot of ideas from dreams (if I remember to write them down before I forget!). I admire your ability to write horror; wish I could. Thanks for commenting, Berek.

  3. Man, I love that quote. It's a great rule to remember.


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