Alright, I promised world building advice and world building advice I will give. Anyone who has been writing for a while has run into the problem of realizing that he or she just doesn’t know enough about their story. In modern or historical fiction this calls for travel or research, after all if I don’t know enough about England to finish my story, then I need to go learn more about England. If I don’t know enough about Napoleon, then I need to learn more about Napoleon. However, if fantasy and science fiction writing this calls for World Building, after all when Tolkien ran into a problem who couldn’t just hop on a plane and take a trip to Middle Earth to find the answer. Speculative fiction is about creation, and so when a speculative fiction author realizes that he/she doesn’t know enough about his/her world to finish a story, then the only solution is to create more world. Thus, world building.
Let me first dispel a common misconception about world building and writing speculative fiction. You have to do research! Yes, the world that you are creating is yours, and yes the rules are different from those of the normal world. However, any speculative fiction world must be close enough to the real world to engender familiarity. If you don’t do any research, and you wind up putting jungle plants in the desert, or ignoring the fact that human’s can’t breath in a vacuum, then your readers will notice. Even minor things, like forgetting that sound doesn’t travel in space (and thus you can’t hear explosions), or forgetting that eagles ride rising thermal air instead of flapping their wings to stay a loft, will be noticed. In fact, often times small mistakes are harder to dismiss than big ones. For instance, if I write a story in which human’s can breath in space (as ridiculous as it is), a reader is much more likely to accept this and keep reading than that same reader is to accept a single mention of an eagle flapping its way through the sky. Huge changes are expected in speculative fiction (i.e. magic, spaceships, laser pistols, elves, dwarfs, etc), and so a huge but consistent change is fairly easy to swallow, it is within the readers grasp. However, a mistake from lack of research (i.e a single mention of a broad-leafed plant in the desert or a man in 1975 with a cell phone) will set your reader’s eyes to rolling and that’s when they stop caring. Be creative, and be bold, but do your research and don’t be stupid. If you want to make a people group that trains falcons to deliver messages, that’s fine, but if everyone uses pigeons except for the one random person who has a falcon that you somehow forgot to mention before, that people will notice.
So, with that rather long disclaimer out of the way, lets get down to world building. There are many ways that you can realize that you need to start world-building (maybe a character who needs a home, a city that was mentioned but now needs to be explored, or maybe you just need to know what you’re hero’s chamber pot should look like), but there are only three real places to start. When you sit down to start world-building, you can begin by creating either people groups, landscapes, or nations. This is the difference: a people group is a certain race (i.e. the Kurds, Turks, Aryans, or Native Americans); a landscape is the shape of the world, or a part of it (i.e. a map of North America, or of Bejing); and a nation is a specific political power (i.e. Germany, Italy, or Iraq). It is easy, and in speculative fiction common, to confuse people groups with nations, and sometimes this is appropriate. However, borders are commonly arbitrary (just look at the middle east), and often a people group will be spread out through multiple nations, and a nation will contain multiple people groups. While you can build your world however you want, this fact of the real world is something to take into account.
So, how do you begin? As with everything else, begin with broad strokes and then fill in the details later. You might begin by making a list of the major people groups in your world, or in a portion of it (this is how I started creating the world of Avnul). Or, you might begin by drawing maps, or even doodling and deciding later that your doodles are maps (this is how Orson Scott Card began building one of his worlds). You might start by listing out the major political powers in your world, and how they relate to one another (I’m in the middle of doing this now for a new story that I want to write someday). Wherever you start, begin with this in mind: Good world-building takes time. If you only want a big enough world to write a two-thousand word story, then it might only take a few weeks or a month – maybe you only need a city, or even just part of a city. However, a complete world can take years to write. It must grow, evolve, and become a creature and a character all it’s own. I don’t plan to write anything longer than flash fiction in the world I just started for at least two years.
Giving your world time to grow and percolate also gives the world character. Things are added or evolve in ways that you would never have imagined when you first started, and just like a good story, your world won’t look like what you first wanted it to be – it will be bigger, broader, and deeper than you ever expected. If you give your world the time and attention that it needs, then it will feel like a real place to your readers, and that is what makes great fiction!