In the beginning there was Tolkein and he really did world building: language, geography, history, the lot. I think he is probably the model for the kind of writer who devises a complete world before putting pen to paper, the kind of writer who has notebooks full of background material. I get the impression that JK Rowling did much the same thing with her class lists and drawings. I know many people for whom the pleasure of building a world certainly equals that of writing the story.
Well, I can’t do it. I just can’t. I open a notebook and the most I can come up with is a bad drawing/doodle and a shopping list. Even if my brain would let me, I suspect that trying to build a world from scratch would set off my (long dormant) perfectionist streak and I would be immobilised by ignorance. What happens to tides if you have two moons? How would plants photosynthesise when the sun grew dim?
There is another way. It isn’t a better way, but it is an alternate way. It is called making it up as you go along.
I don’t know much about how this word works but I know what it feels like to be here, so in writing about other worlds I focus on what it feels like to be there. Then I work out why things are as they are. In my mind’s eye I see a woman in a painted wooden mask by a dung fire, a glowing silver boy in a ditch watching a baby-faced bird, a soaring golden dragon in a blue sky. Why? What? How? I write the story to find out.
Everything should connect: everything has to have a credible explanation. If someone wears silk in a climate that wouldn’t support silk worms they have to belong to some kind of trading culture. If a woman burns dung on her fire and lives by a forest there has to be a reason why she doesn’t burn the trees. Each new world building detail sets into motion a domino effect; repercussions crash through the fabric of the story. It is quite fun.
I still get immobilised by ignorance, but at least I don’t have to know everything up front, only those things that affect my story directly.
World building in this ad hoc way is a bit like a developing a picture. Everything in the foreground has to be in sharp focus; the further away it is the less well defined it appears. My characters leaving the city of Lunnzia, the known world of my imagining, walk into a landscape that does not yet have form. I don’t know what lies beyond the borders of the Island of the Gifted and unless my characters escape them I’ll never find out.
Like I said, this isn’t the only way of world building, but it is a way, one that allows the words to keep flowing and the ideas to keep developing as the story and the world take shape together.