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Monday, July 24

Birth of a Book: The Development Stage: Creating the Setting and Building the World

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Part of the Early Stages of a Novel Series


This series has been discussing the early stages of writing a novel. We started with the Stage One: the Idea Stage, beginning with the Inspirational Spark, moving on to Brainstorming the Idea, Clarifying the Idea, and wrapping it up with Testing the idea. Next, we moved on to Stage Two: Development, which got us looking at ways to create characters, and then further develop those characters. This week, we shift to setting and world building.

Although setting looks like step three in this series (idea, characters, setting), I often do considerable world building before I development my characters. As a fantasy writer, the story and world are so interconnected I need to know how my world works before I can do any serious story and character work.

This won’t be true for all writers. It won’t even be true for all fantasy and science fiction writers, though I suspect the vast majority of us do a lot of world building first. The more critical a role the setting plays in the story, the more likely you are to flesh out that world early on.

What is true for all of us, is that no matter where our stories are set, we’ll have to develop that setting until we feel comfortable enough to write in it. Here’s how I begin that process:

Step One: Determine Where to Set the Story


This seems like a no-brainer—of course the story will be set somewhere—but some ideas come to us without any inkling of where they take place. My current WIP was like that. I knew the antagonist and the problem before I had anything else, while my debut novel started with the world and the magic. Wherever it appears in your process, at some point you’ll have to decide where the novel is set.

For some, this is as easy as saying, “Denver.” Novels set in the real world in modern day might need very little world building or setting development. If it’s a location the writer knows well, there might not be anything beyond this step.

For those of us with created or historical worlds that need more work, this is the decision that will guide that world-building work. For example, as I developed my current MG fantasy idea, I decided I wanted to set it someplace small, rural, and isolated, but with a deeply rooted sense of community, tradition, and magic. The idea had a bit of a folk tale vibe to it, so I wanted something folksy. I like to use real-world locations as jumping off points when I create a fantasy world, so I picked Appalachia as my inspiration.

Special note here: My novel is in no way set in actual Appalachia—it’s just the inspiration for it, and it’s doubtful readers will even realize the connection. I’m pulling elements from that region, but I’m not making my world a fantasy version of it. For example, The Shifter was inspired by Venice and the Lake Victoria region of Africa, though the city of Geveg is its own place. You can pick a real place to start world building and create something unique.

You might know exactly where you want to set the novel (such as Denver) or a general sense (such as a tropical island). The point of this first step is to narrow it down and give you a direction for any further research you want to do.

(Here’s more on questions to ask when choosing a setting)

Step Two: Research the Setting


Once I know the inspiration for my setting, I begin researching that setting. I start online with a basic Google search and start reading. I follow and read up on anything interesting that jumps out at me. I take notes in OneNote and copy down details I want to remember or work with more. As ideas come to me, I also write those down.

For some worlds, I’ll buy books and study the subject (my upcoming adult urban fantasy is such a series—I needed a lot of books for the mythological side of it). I have research books covered in tape flags, and pages with highlighted text and notes in the margins.

Some writers travel to where their books are set and do hands-on research (I spent time in Arizona on one such trip this past spring). I know some historical authors who spend years researching a location or time period for their novels, both visiting the area and studying its history.

During this step I don’t try to direct my research too much. I have a general idea of what the story is about, but I try not to limit my discovery with preconceived ideas of what I want for the world. If I get stuck in one line of thinking this early, it can cause me to discard great ideas that “don’t fit” what I “want to do,” even though nothing is set in stone at this point. The research is all about casting a wide net and finding cool details to inspire me.

Stories set in the real world can benefit greatly from Google street view. I virtually ran all over Las Vegas for one book, and Indiana for another. I tweaked and changed details as needed, but sometimes a writer wants the setting to be recognizable and accurate.

Eventually, I find enough background and detail for the world to take shape, and then I’m ready to make it my own.

(Here’s more on researching your novel)

Step Three: Adapt the Setting to the Story


This is where I take all that research and craft my world. I give elements names, create histories and backstories, determine the economic, social, and educational aspects of the world. I basically answer the questions of how my story works in this world and how things got to be this way. Most of what I create here will not be used specifically in the story, though it will affect how I write that story. For example, I might know the history behind a great war, but unless that history needs to be mentioned in the story, I’ll just show the affects that war had on the region and its people. If that war caused animosity that still exists, people will dislike each other even if they don’t fully remember why.

I try to create reasons for anything a reader might wonder about, but those reasons don’t have to be detailed explanations. For example, if people in the story know that boiling birchbark for tea eases pain, they don’t need to know the scientific reasons behind it. They just know certain plants have medicinal properties that information has been handed down for generations. So if I know this culture has practiced herbal medicine and handed down that knowledge, tat means I just need to research folk medicine well enough to make my medical practitioners and their trade feel realistic.

(Here’s more on building your world from the ground up)

Step Four: Add the Characters to the Setting


My final step is to put the characters into the world I’ve created. I need to know how they fit, what they do, what aspects of the world affect them and how they affect the world. And again, this is a strong fantasy/genre aspect that many writers won’t need to worry about, even though real-world writers can still benefit from knowing how their characters fit into their settings.

It’s not unusual for me to add additional world-building elements at this time as I realize I need to have X trait or skill in Y situation for the plot or story to work. I might want a certain plot event or situation to happen, so I create details that allow it to unfold as I envision. Sometimes that knocks another detail out of whack and I have to realign several aspects of the world to make it all fit together smoothly again.

(Here's more on how setting affects your characters)

There’s a lot of back and forth in these early stages of novel development. One idea affects another, and I might have to change details in the idea to fit something I came up with in the world, and that requires a few tweaks of the characters. I’m totally okay with this at this stage, because this is where all the brainstorming is happening. I want to get all the cool ideas (and dead ends) out of my head now before I spend time writing the novel. It’s far easier to change things at this stage than after the first draft is done.

This covers the general process of creating the setting and building the world. I’ve written a lot about world building already so I won’t go into detail with these, but if anyone would like me to expand on something, just let me know. Otherwise, I’ll move on to figuring out the plot next week.

What’s your process for creating a setting and building your story world? 

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my bestselling Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).


A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  
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