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World Building: The Little Things

When you hear the term “world building,” it’s likely you associate it with fantasy or sci-fi. World building is necessary, though, regardless of what genre you’re writing. Contemporary worlds need to be accurate and feel real. It’s not the same, because you’re not creating a world from scratch, or incorporating fantastical or futuristic elements that aren’t present, but it’s still important and still presents challenges. It may not be exactly the same, but any world building advice you see can, for the most part, apply to any genre. I mention this because in this point, it’s probably going to sound like I’m only referring to world building as it applies to fantasy. But I’m not. Just insert the appropriate genre for yourself into your mind.

There are probably millions of blog posts and articles on this subject on the internet. A google search will find them for you, and there are definitely some gems. But I want to focus on a specific part of world building for this post: the details. You don’t want to create the potential for an ocean filled with all its wonder-filled depths, and leave your reader standing in the tide pools.

How real your world feels comes down to the tiniest of details. Does everyone speak the same language? And what language is it*, exactly? What part of the world does this take place in, or is it based on? If you want to evoke a Mediterranean feel, giving towns (and people) American sounding names isn’t going to accomplish the desired effect. Is the world supposed to feel medieval? Then you’re not going to want fancy modern bedding. Are your characters magical? Consider how it works, down to the last detail.

Even if it doesn’t all make it into your ms—which it most likely should not—you should have a grasp of all the inner workings of your world. It will make it more real to you, and that will be clear to your readers. The small details may be small. But they also might be the most interesting. Just like some of the incredibly cool creatures at the bottom of the ocean you’d totally miss if you didn’t leave the tide pools.

*this doesn’t mean you should necessarily try to invent a language. Unless you’re a linguist, you should probably stick to the basics. Just my opinion.
Kaitlin Ward

Kaitlin Ward is the author of Bleeding Earth, Adaptive Books 2016, and The Farm, coming 2017 from Scholastic.

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  1. Contemporary settings are hard for me. As a non-American, I don't want to set anything in America, because I don't know how convincingly I can write that. But I've been reluctant to write books set in Barbados or Japan where I grew up and where I live now. I'm afraid it will be too exotic. So for my first two novels, the settings have been more fictitious than the story. :S

  2. The world-building part is so fun! Yes, details are super-important. I know that in Avatar, Cameron made up an entire language and had botanists create fauna with all new names.

  3. My current work-in-progress is set at the Jersey shore, an environment I'm all-too-familiar-with. And I've probably done more world building with this than any other novel! It's helped me to remember how complex a setting should be for it to be completely realized--at least as complex as the real world, if not more.

  4. Kaitlin = rock star blogger.

    Great post! You're so right that the world-building is important in all genres, not just fantasy/sci-fi. It's something I really need to work on.

  5. World building is so important. The stories I fall head over feet for are always rich in setting! When you get to know the world as well as if you were vacationing there... Smell the smells, taste the tastes... etc.

  6. This reminds me a lot of what Natalie Goldberg talks about over and over again... "We mistake detail for beying picayune or only for writing about ants and bobby pins. We think of detail as small..."

    But as she and this post both state, detail is a huge and crucial part of storytelling.

  7. Great post, yes the details are hugely important. My novel is set in a fictionalized version of the town I live in, so that's not too hard but as a Brit writing about Americans my critique partners found quite a lot of mistakes, luckily they are wonderful at catching them.

  8. I think it's crucial that you explore as many details as possible in your setting. The point that you make that every detail is not necessarily going to appear in your ms is important. But this may preclude someone from fleshing out all there is to know about the world they're building, which would be a mistake. As the writer, having what you envision in mind is what counts.


  9. I love building fantasy worlds, but contemporary worlds I find difficult. Maybe I live in my head too much - LOL.

    Great post Kaitlin!


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Item Reviewed: World Building: The Little Things Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Kaitlin Ward