The Process: Worldbuilding

I’ve been tracking my process as I develop a potential new book series, and I’m now in deep worldbuilding.

When I was in college, I took a course on “parageography,” which is the geography of imaginary worlds. In other words, worldbuilding. Although we studied worlds from fictional works (mostly classics, because the course was taught in the Classics department, which meant The Odyssey, etc.), we were mostly isolating the world from the story. In this course, our focus wasn’t on what happened, but on a place where things can happen. Our main project in the course was to create a world and find a way to show that world that wasn’t an encyclopedia entry, a list of things about it. As I recall, I used the card catalogue from a reference library in a monastery school, showing the works that were readily available in the library, as well as those that were restricted so that only some people could check them out (and this was years before Hermione tried to get books from the restricted section in the Hogwarts library).

Until recently, that’s been the only fictional world I’ve built from scratch. With the Enchanted, Inc. books, I was layering a magical world on top of the real world, so the main thing I needed to know about was the real world. I took a research trip to New York and actually walked around all the areas that I planned to use in the story. I already knew the city fairly well, having gone there for a number of conferences and business trips (I worked for a company based in New York), but once I got ready to write, I explored the specific things I needed to know. From there, I just had to add the magical things and figure out how that worked. The same thing applied for the Fairy Tale books. I took a trip just to research the real-world settings, and the fairy Realm was meant to be rather dreamlike, so there wasn’t any real worldbuilding. It was what the people there made of it. I researched a lot of folklore involving the fae and pulled from that to create that world. The Rebels books were a bit more of a challenge, as they were based on a real place but in a different time. There’s a lot about New York that still exists from that time, but a lot is gone. I didn’t make a special trip for that book. I have a historical atlas of New York I used, showing the layout of the city at given points in time, with photos of a lot of the locations. I tried to be as accurate as I could be for the time, but when I needed something to be different for the story, I figured that the fact that there was magic and the British still ruled would explain any discrepancies (I had a lot of arguments with my very literal editor about this).

I did have an imaginary “secondary” world in Spindled, but it was meant to be a generic fairy tale world, so I just had to work out some of the geography, and it was mostly based on a few towns I remembered from living in Germany. I’ve had a few projects that haven’t gone anywhere that are set in fantasy worlds, but I didn’t get to the point of truly doing worldbuilding.

Now I’m really creating an imaginary world from scratch, and the more digging I do into it, the more I realize how sketchy those shelved projects were. They were essentially Generic Quasi-Medieval European Fantasy Worlds. I’m making a real effort now to work out the culture, economics, history, etc., of the places in this world that I’m going to use in this series, and that means digging into details like what the buildings look like, their forms of transportation, arts and culture, what their major holidays are, what marriage means to them, and other details like that. I’ve got lists of worldbuilding questions I’ve been putting together from various sources over the years, and I’m going through them, making up answers to each of them (based on the research I did on some of the real-world places and situations I’m using as the basis). Making up these answers makes the world get clearer and clearer in my head and gives me other ideas. I may or may not end up using any or all of this in the story, but I have been getting some plot ideas from this work, and me knowing it may inform other choices I make along the way.

I’m not trying to create something totally from scratch. It’s still basically Earth-like with some magical touches, but I hope that doing all this thinking will keep it from being the Generic European Fantasy World.

So far, I’m finding that coming up with names for places is the most difficult part. I don’t want to use real place names or use names that actually translate in a real language, but I also want the names to be consistent and sound like they really are from the same language. I don’t want to go off the deep end into full-on fantasy names that are impossible to pronounce. I’m tempted to just translate some words into Norwegian and maybe alter a few letters.

Next week, I’m going to start developing my main characters. I already have some ideas and notes for some of them, but now it’s time to really figure out what they’re like and what makes them tick.

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