As you probably know, some degree of world-building is necessary for any piece of fiction, since no one wants to read about people operating in a vacuum. For contemporary settings, details like streets, shops, clothes, food, transportation and local flavor can either be looked up (for a real town or city) or made up (for fictitious ones) based on real, similar locales.
Historical romance novels presented me with a slightly bigger challenge—especially since the internet was still in its infancy when I started. I had to do a ton of research (yes, out of actual books) before I could create authentic settings for my characters. I had to know what my heroes and heroines would wear, eat, say, do…you get the idea. With those books I used real places and events from the past as my jumping-off point for my fictional story worlds, keeping in mind that Regency readers really know their stuff and would spot any errors in a heartbeat.
When I switched to YA science fiction romance a few years ago, I faced a whole different challenge. Though the first book, Starstruck, takes place in our familiar world, I knew future books in the series would not. Because of that, I wanted to make my heroine’s ordinary world feel as real as possible, to provide maximum contrast to the more fantastical world(s) she would experience later on. I visited numerous small towns in north-central Indiana, borrowing features from several of them to create my heroine’s (fictitious) hometown of Jewel, Indiana, with its own streets, shops, churches, public spaces, etc. To keep myself consistent, I sketched out this (very) rough map of Jewel:
Partly because it had a great website, I used one particular high school as a sort of template for Jewel High, where much of the action in the first two books take place. That school’s athletic schedule, academic offerings, calendar and other publicly available info was incredibly useful whenever I needed those sorts of details (which was often).
Though I built my futuristic Martian colony basically from scratch, I used a lot of familiar reference points to help ground the reader (and myself) when introducing its more fantastical features. That allowed my heroine to compare things like a monarchy, mag-lev trains, holo-displays and food recombinators with our own government, modes of travel, entertainment, and kitchen gadgets while navigating an unfamiliar environment. As is almost always the case, there's a LOT more to my fictional world than will ever show up in the pages of a book, but that's part of what keeps things real. All that extra stuff also gives me material from which I can create bonus goodies for my diehard fans (much of which is available at my starstruckseries.com website).
World building can obviously be a lot of work, but all those little details are what makes a story world come alive—for the author, the characters, their story and, ultimately, the reader. For both my historical and science fiction romances, my main world-building goal is to create worlds my readers will want to return to, book after book.