Creating a World from Scratch…Or Not (Brenda Hiatt)

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).

In book two, Starcrossed, I expanded on the few details my heroine had already learned about the secret underground colony on Mars that would become increasingly important to her. Little by little, I created a whole new “world” with its own history, system of government, traditions, and more. I even made up a language, based loosely on ancient Gaelic. Long before my heroine actually visited that world in book three, I sketched out my own map of Nuath for reference. I’m no artist (as you can see) but this map helped give me a feel for population density, villages vs cities, and how topography and culture intersected.

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 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.  


  1. You did a fantastic job of worldbuilding in the Starstruck series, both on earth and on Mars!

  2. This is great! I sketched out a map of a garden apartment complex in Queens, NY that I'm using as setting for a contemporary romance coming out this summer. It really helped me with continuity... I kept forgetting which character lived in what apartment. I am doing a similar sketch for two circles of friends -- one for the hero and one for the heroine, because this latest project is the largest cast I've ever written. I'm already discovering that the sketches are helping me track each group's dynamics.... who's shy, who's secretly crushing on another, etc. Great idea!


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