Recently, while giving me feedback on a story, LL Phelps of the Taipei Writer’s Group asked me about worldbuilding, and specifically how I go about filling my fantasy worlds with details. I like to think that I’m pretty good at “little details” worldbuilding, and I’ve spent a lot of time practicing working it into my speculative fiction. LL Phelps asked me if “these things just come to you as you write, or if you plan them, or are inspired by another source.” The answer, predictably, is that my worldbuilding is a mixture of all three. The larger details–geography, political structures, magic systems, etc.–I plan out almost completely before I start writing.
Sometimes those plans are inspired by sources from history or philosophy or even other fiction. For example, one thing that I like to do is base magic systems on actual metaphysical philosophies from history. The magic system in my Writers of the Future Honorable Mention winning novelette, “Wei Hongyun and the Fog Demon” was based on Chinese cosmology, specifically Feng Shui and the Five Phases. The novel project I am currently working on has a political structure modeled after an exaggerated version of Catholic hierarchy, if church hierarchy had absorbed secular politics, and the city which is the primary setting has a layout loosely modeled after Renaissance Rome, but relocated to sit directly on the coast. Sometimes these larger details seem to spring into my head from the ether, but if I excavate them and try to trace their origins they’re almost always based in a history book, a movie, or a novel I’ve read. The smaller details, though, are only rarely lifted directly from anything. Which is to say, when I’m writing a street scene I don’t usually draw details directly from a source or a google street view or a description of medieval marketplaces.
Fortunately I majored in history and I remember enough of my education to sprinkle my stories with this sort of detail. But sometimes I have to doublecheck something, and a quick google search or prolonged hunt through Wikipedia usually proves sufficient for at least making sure I’m not–for example–injecting something from the early modern period into late renaissance urban economics. This process has also led to my stumbling on some really great blogs which provide lots of information that can be useful in this sort of small-details worldbuilding, such as Lost Kingdom’s Project Cove–which is currently in the midst of a series on medieval villages–or oldandinteresting.com, a website which declares itself dedicated to “the history of domestic paraphernalia.” If you’re looking for places to begin little details worldbuilding research for fantasy settings, these are good starting points.
I hope this is helpful to those who have a hard time filling their worlds with little details! A word of warning, though. I have on multiple occasions bogged myself down by becoming obsessed with the detail of a setting at the expense of the larger story I’m trying to tell. Details are great and can make a world come alive when used effectively, but no one wants to read a treatise on medieval linen laundering methods cleverly disguised as an epic fantasy novel. What are your thoughts? How do you fill your invented worlds with detail? And how much detail is too much? Let me know in the comments. -JeremyTeG