I think this is one of the more subtle areas of writing and one we frequently pay less attention to. We focus on our plot and building our characters but don’t approach the time and place of the story as fervently.
World building is creating the world or setting of our story. Where does the action take place? When does the action take place? One of the early lessons I learned in writing, especially fiction, is to keep the reader anchored in time and place.
Is it a spaceship sailing 500 years from now? Or is it Jules Verne or C. S. Lewis—science fiction written from their unique perspectives?
Is it a sailing ship crossing the Atlantic 400 years ago bringing pilgrims to the New World? Or is it a cruise ship flipped upside down by a storm or struck by an iceberg?
Is it contemporary Fort Worth or Dodge City in the 1880s?
Is it an entirely fictional world like Middle Earth?
Are we writing crime novels, suspense, thrillers, mysteries? Any of these genres requires a unique approach to creating story worlds. Read the early writers like Hammet, Chandler, and Dorothy Sayer. Read the contemporary authors like Michael Connelly. I think he is one of the best at writing contemporary crime novels.
And no matter your genre or story world, you will need to do research either before you start or after each draft. Study the actual history of your story world and read historical novels set in the period of your story and assess the accuracy and the believability of your version of the world.
No matter where or when we set our story, it must be believable, and it must be something the reader can visualize and imagine the characters interacting with. The more we can make the setting a character in our story, the more solid and engaging it will be. Think of the movie The Perfect Storm, or Andy Weir’s novel, The Martian. For an interesting use of story world, watch The Martian Child which explores Earth through the eyes of a young boy who thinks he’s from Mars.
One of my favorite authors to study for world building is Orson Scott Card. His science fiction, fantasy novels, and alternative history stories show how to build a believable world and make it a character. He has written a craft book I recommend in almost every class I teach and to every author I mentor. It’s called How to Write Fantasy & Science Fiction (Writer’s Digest Books, 1990). It is a priceless resource in how to write in any genre.
Another factor to consider is your story world is not static. It changes and grows as your story develops and you learn new things about your characters and your plot.
And remember, each character’s interaction with your story world is different. The same world but see from different points of view. One character may see your beautiful tropical island as peaceful and serene, heaven on earth. Another may see the same island as hostile and threatening, filled with poisonous plants and dangerous animals. How they see the world of the story affects how they interact with the story world and how they interact with other characters.
What are some of your favorite resources for building a story world?