(Pensacola, Florida; Feb. 11, 2022,) – The great news about getting building permits for your fictional world is that you have to visit no government offices, nor pay any taxes or fees!
Worldbuilding is a part of writing that is uniquely yours. You’re creating an entire mythology for your story, meaning you have an opportunity to add something new to the literary world. The fortunate few whose stories go viral might even be admitted to that pantheon of generation-spanning bards such as The Bard, J. R. R. Tolkien, George Lucas, J.K. Rowling, Gene Roddenberry, Mary Shelley, etc. Most of us won’t hit such lofty heights, but none of us can know who might get there. We only know we have a chance to try, and that chance is more than worth the effort!
The world of the Accidental Detective is largely based on our own modern world, but I’ve created complex, interweaving fictional events and organizations threaded throughout the tapestry. Even so, the adventures of the Accidental Detective are actually on part of the universe I’m building. The staging of Accidental Detective is but one part of a generation-spanning saga of the Shepherd, Gray, and Stavenger families. All three families ‘collide’ for the first time in the Accidental Detective adventures, but their timelines go back to early Europe and Japan before traveling over 4,000 years into the far-distant future of a science fiction epic I’m developing.
This shared universe began taking shape in my imagination back in the 1980s, long before the MCU proved such narrative constructions were truly bankable ideas. Back in the ‘80s I just thought it’d be cool to have the world of Michael McRany (the precursor to the modern Isaac Shepherd) interconnect with the science-fiction world I was also creating. The transition of this character through many incarnations, from Michael McRany to Michael Melendez, to Isaac Melendez, and, finally, to the Isaac Shepherd in the Accidental Detective series coincided with my decision to have him be a distant, indirect ancestor of my science-fiction hero. (For the record, the future science fiction protagonist traces his direct lineage back to Isaac’s brother Joshua).
I honestly never thought about how difficult worldbuilding can be until the other week while talking with a buddy I’ll call ‘Carl.’ He’s a custom leather worker, but working to develop a few novels. He’s got some great ideas, but the worldbuilding he needs to do is stopping him cold. We were discussing my fictional universe when he asked me how I actually develop this world. The question itself stopped me cold. I honestly never thought about the ‘how’ of it all; I just do it.
I don’t believe in false modesty; I have a true gift for writing. I’ve been developing this massive literary leviathan since I first saw Star Wars in 1977 when I was six years old. In fact, I have the opposite problem to many people; I have too much already developed in my head to be able to easily write it all down. My mind can conceive, catalogue, and call upon so much information that I mostly keep everything filed mentally. Writing down narrative summaries often results in me getting bogged down because the backstory can become more in-depth than the current book I’m working on!
Carl’s question made me realize I’ve never thought about how to help mentor and coach new writers in worldbuilding. I was shocked to realize I took for granted that ‘everyone can just do it pretty easily,’ but the reality is that everyone can’t just do it as easily as I do. So, for the past few weeks I’ve been really thinking on how to coach new writers through what a potentially daunting challenge.
Worldbuilding is a very simple idea at first glance. Once, you have a story idea, you need to create an immediate environment and social/political/cultural reality for that particular story. This can be a fairly easy, straightforward exercise if you’re working on a single, one-off book that requires minimal staging, or if your story simply takes place in our world, past or present. However, if your story takes place in an alternate timeline, a science fiction or fantasy universe, or if you wish to imbue our modern world with multiple fictional events woven throughout real history, then you’ve accepted an intricate challenge that might feel like an impossibly overwhelming task.
Fear not! Like all tasks, this effort can be tamed with the application of some basic project and time management skills, coupled with a realistic set of expectations for yourself. My extensive training in course development and project management during my time in the Navy provided me a framework to approach this.
So, let me conclude this introductory part of this four-part series by telling you how to get your worldbuilding construction permit:
Focus on one part of your world. That’s it. Just one.
A fictional mythology will be a vast, multifaceted construct enabling your stories to shine through many lenses. However, no one builds a house in one go, nor do you build a world in one sitting.
If you have a story in mind, pick the one part of your world that most directly impacts that story. Don’t throw the rest away; just file it away. Once you’ve identified that one aspect, get a notebook and start developing it a bit so you can learn what format for developing your world is best for you. This is the first step any writer needs to experiment with.
For example, I tried for years to write things down as a narrative summary only to discover that process bogs me down into paralysis. I learned using a simply outline and timeline format is my personal best practice for creating my personal reference material. Perhaps an outline or timeline format works for you. Perhaps you need to use bullet points. Perhaps you work best if you do write out a full-on narrative summary of this aspect. Learning how your mind works best is the first step in worldbuilding, so that’s your homework, class!
Decide on one aspect of your world to develop, preferably the one that most directly impacts your current story idea. Spend the next week experimenting with different formats for recording the details you’ve dreamed up for that one aspect (heck, maybe using a voice recording is your thing?). Find out what works for you.
I’ve broken this discussion into four parts. Obviously, you just read part one. Next up in this Writer’s Craft series will be a look at character biography and backstory, followed by external backstory development (the social/political/cultural backstory). I’ll conclude this series with a look at how to work in the inevitable retcons that will crop up as you develop your story across the years.
For now, unleash your imagination and start dreaming! Let your mind, your heart, and your soul guide your pen in scribing the outlines of your magnificent, fictional world!
-Check out my video on this topic at: https://youtu.be/h1HuHlPaDfk
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