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This Writing Life: Setting the Tone in World-Building

1 September, 2014

I’ve been posting these Writing Life entries for some time now, and they typically reflect whichever stage of the writing process I’m currently at. However, my topics are nearly always something related to actually writing or editing – the early stages of planning novels and creating worlds I tend to keep to myself. Why? I suppose, in the past, there’s been a little part of me that’s worried about people ‘stealing my ideas’ – which is patently ridiculous, but is one of those little foibles all writers go through at one stage or another. I’m also aware that my process for world-building and starting novels is a) completely unsystematic, and b) different every time I do it.

Still, I’ll soon be writing the first draft of a new novel in an entirely new world, so I wanted to talk about how I got started with its creation. For me, concrete research comes later: at this stage, I’m focused entirely on developing the tone of my world in very broad strokes. That might include what rough, real-world time period the world will be based on; whether the setting is analogous to a real-world country or region; what the magic system might comprise in very general terms; whether the story will delve into the religion, or politics, or economy of the world I’m creating (I may well develop all three, but that doesn’t mean the plot will ever touch on them).

Now, it’s virtually impossible for me to start developing a novel with no idea of setting at all. The world, or at least some vague conception of it, usually comes to me before character, plot, or anything else. This stage of my world-building, then, involves taking that ‘vague conception’ and turning it into something concrete enough that I can start researching specifics. There are two main aspects to this: lots of notes, and lots of pictures.

The former means scribbling down every idea that occurs to me, no matter how ridiculous. Ideas for character, for plot, for details of the world – at this stage, all go down together, and each concept tends to strengthen others (deciding a character is going to use a certain type of magic means I have to find a place for that magic in my world, for example; and yes, character does often force the world in a certain direction at this point).

As I mentioned above, I often have a real-world time period or region in mind when pulling together my very early world-building ideas, and this is where pictures come in. A quick Google search will instantly give me images to help set the tone of my world. My latest novel, for example, started life with a sort of faux-Medieval Spain, so searching for images associated with ‘Medieval Spain’ instantly gives my world grounding. Will the finished setting be anything like the real Medieval Spain? Probably not, but at this point I’m just feeding my brain, giving it related information from which it can start building all the really juicy details.

As I write this post, I realise how hazy this process sounds (and why I haven’t blogged about it before!). It is hazy, even for me, but the key concept is simply this: gathering together as many inspirations as possible, then letting them swirl around together until more concrete ideas emerge. Additionally, it’s important not to discount anything at this stage. Trying to force your story and world in a certain direction can easily turn them into something stale and probably something you’ve seen done before, whilst letting your subconscious throw up ideas that feel completely disconnected can sometimes lead your story down avenues you’d never have considered otherwise.

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