Whinging and worldbuilding

The pressure to come up with a brilliant post after a long time of not posting: I have it. So, I’ll just get this out, sans brilliance, but posted at least!

I haven’t been writing too much recently. In the past month, I’ve written just a couple of poems and such – oh, and my morning pages, which I’ve been diligently doing every morning since 13 March. I’m glad I’ve continued doing morning pages, but it’s not proper creative writing (despite the occasional flash of a good sentence or description).

I think I need a new Project. Something I could work on, but that I could fit into my all-too-crammed schedule. On top of my day job, I’m doing a translation gig and slowly working towards PhD applications. Pile some volunteer work and daily life on the whole thing, and… yeah. Not too much time for writing. I should just do more 15-min writing spurts and such, though. But when your brain energy is sucked up by everything else, it’s difficult to get a creative flow going in the evening. I feel bad when I’m not writing, incomplete; so why is it so hard to just do writing exercises if nothing else?

I actually have a Project ghosting about in my mind, and ideas spilling out onto paper every now and then. But it’s just a nascent world as yet, not a story I could tell. It’s still in slow, slow percolation mode.

Which is why I should get reading more inspiring stuff about worldbuilding. So, for starters, here’s some stuff by Kate Elliott (author of the awesome Spiritwalker series), who is amazing at worldbuilding.

So, there are approaches to worldbuilding that start with making a physical map, a geographical account of the world you’re creating. Kate Elliott has a slightly different approach, visualising the more intangible elements of the world before drawing a physical map. In this first, “internalized map”, she sketches out some of the cosmology and subjective worldviews of the various peoples in her world. How I understand it is that she creates the emotional world before the physical one. What do her characters think like? Why is it that they think like they do? She writes:

Every character in the story has an internal map through which they measure, comprehend, and navigate the world they live in. Their maps won’t be the same as every other character’s, and they won’t be the same as mine.

Kate E has also written another great post on the subject of worldbuilding and mapmaking here. Maps are not objective:

The point to come back to as a world builder is to always remember that you, the one who is drawing the map, are making a series of decisions about what matters enough to go in the map, and about what and how it is represented.

Look at medieval maps, for instance. This is a map of the world. So is this, the Holy Land at its centre. Maps can illuminate what their cultures consider important – this is also something to consider when making a map for a fantasy world.

Of course, map-making (of any sort) isn’t the only way to go about worldbuilding. Kate Elliott (yes, today’s an Elliott-link day) has a great post about who’s visible in your story. You have to question your world: always ask questions. That’s what I’ve been trying to do, with my nascent Project.

And naturally, there are even more ways of starting your worldbuilding. As a linguist with an interest in social history, some of the first worldbuilding questions I ask are about language and its social meanings, and the presence (or not) of multilingualism. And consider Tolkien, with his ultimate worldbuilding-from-linguistics approach. But I think that’s a subject for another post!


  1. I like the distinction Elliott makes between maps of the physical world and a world’s “internal map”. Maps are one of my very favourite things, but (in general) they have almost no spot in my world building, pre-story. In physical terms, although I often start with a sense of place, that place tends to be small, and the world grows with the story, as they become relevant to the character’s journey.

    What I do think about a lot are social factors: political structures and cleavages, culture (including trends and shifts), religious belief/s, attitudes to gender and sexuality, class, race, etc.

    For me — when I start — often it’s with a picture in my mind of a person (and where they are) and the story grows from there. I have a sense of who they are, and what they’re doing there, and from there I can extrapolate and build up what the world they’re from is like.

  2. Yes, I really like the idea of the “internal map”, too. It’s a concept that really resonates, because I too usually start with an image or feeling, and not so much a physical map (even though I rather like those too). I see a lot of similarities in the way we approach a story! I also think way more about the social factors than e.g. geographical (at first). We can’t all be geologists, so we have to approach the stories from what we know best, I think. Obviously, I think of the language situation a lot.

    It’s weird: the story-world that’s quietly percolating in my head is the first time in a long time where I’ve got the vision of a physical world before any social structures or characters. I’ve no idea who the characters in that story will be, but their world is slowly growing in my head. I know some of the history of the place, but not who the story will be about. It’s weird and rather interesting!

    1. I’ve no idea who the characters in that story will be, but their world is slowly growing in my head. I know some of the history of the place, but not who the story will be about. It’s weird and rather interesting!

      But at the same time, that gives you a lot to work with in terms of character (I mean, look at our world — 7 billion characters and growing!) If you decide to set the story in a particularly story-inviting part of your world, then the characters are going to shaped by it: what’s that village’s history? Is that town on a river? How did the people there make their livelihood historically? What about now? What’s the local culture like? Is the character an outsider? If so, are they the rejected or the rejecter?

      If you’re looking at a world-encompassing story, then yes it gets trickier, but it also gives you so much to play with in terms of history (which is, in story terms, a great source of conflict).

      (I should add that I too have a world like this, though I do have some idea of the characters. But I’m not sure when to set it, and not sure I’m ready to write it, both in terms of my skill and in terms of I think, properly done, that it will be looooonnnnnnggggg and I’m not ready to commit.)

      1. Sorry! Only the first part was supposed to be in italics!

      2. (Edited it for you! 🙂 )

        True, those are very interesting starting points! With this world I’m sort of planning that it wouldn’t just be one big world-encompassing story, but lots of smaller ones. I’ve already written a poem and am planning a short story set in the world. It’s pretty cool – I’ve never approached a thing like this, uncovering the world in small snippets of story and mythology.

        (So neat that you also have a world like this! I also don’t know when I’ll have the time or readiness to write this thing, because it might require a lot of commitment. Which is why I’m doign the snippets thing.)

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