Tuesday, April 30, 2013

7 Ask a Million Questions: Worldbuilding by Kristin Bailey

My favorite part of the craft of writing is building new worlds. I started out writing Science Fiction and Fantasy because there is nothing more challenging and fun that creating an entire world from scratch. I found the key to good world building is to ask a million questions. When starting from scratch, you have to question everything. What is the geography? What is the climate? Does the climate make sense for the geography? With the geography and climate, what resources are available to people who live there? How would animals adapt to this climate? Given the resources, what social structure would be most likely to develop in a society there? How does this influence the politics? How does this influence the history of the area? And on and on it goes.

I was scared at first of writing what is primarily a historical novel, because I was used to being able to mold and flex all the pieces of the puzzle in my made up worlds. Dealing with fixed historical constraints seemed daunting but as I got into the process, I found it worked the same way. I still had to ask a million questions, only now, I had to look up the answers to make all the pieces work. Some of the questions I had to address when creating my secret order of underground inventors were, why must they remain secret? What benefits come from being a part of this society? How do they distribute these benefits within the Order? How do people become a part of the Order? Where do they meet? Who leads them? Where do they get the strange parts for their machines? Why would the workers who make the parts of the machines keep secret as well? Where does the ore and raw materials for the parts of the machines come from? Would the foundry that makes these parts have access to shipping channels so they have access to these materials?

And again, the questions never stop. I remember having to actively look up what a poor girl in Victorian London might reasonably wear to bed. I also ended up discovering the volume of horse poo that was hauled out of London daily in the 1800s. It was staggering, for the record. I came across that little tidbit while trying to determine the stamina of a horse moving at a fast trot. I had to line these constraints up against historical maps, then look into the climate and geography of the new areas of England I wandered into. It takes a remarkable amount of work to do it well, and every novel, from magic-based fantasy to contemporary drama, needs this level of scrutiny in how the world of the book is created.

So, here are my overall tips.

1. Take nothing for granted. Every detail that you focus on as a point in the book deserves careful consideration to make sure it makes sense with the whole of what you are writing.

2. Research is your best friend. Start with researching the big picture, then narrow your focus down to the detail you are trying to address. Keeping an eye on the big picture of your research helps when you have to decide what details are significant, and what ones can be placed in the background.

3. Try to look ahead and determine what you are going to need from your world. This can be difficult for people who write without outlining and prefer to write in the moment, but it is hard to be in the moment if you have to stop and wonder if the pieces of your world fit together every three paragraphs. The pitfall of not looking ahead is either world building that doesn't make sense, but is convenient to the plot, or a frustrating manuscript that can't ever be wrestled into shape because the pieces don't fit.

So good luck building beautiful and fascinating societies and worlds, from the interior of high schools, to alternate history fantasy worlds set in the future.

Good world building is the foundation for all of them, so keep asking those questions.

About the Author

Kristin Bailey grew up in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley in California. As a kid she enjoyed visiting the beach, camping and skiing with her two brothers.

Now she is a military wife and mother of two young children. She is also terrible about spoiling her pets. She has one fluffy mutt, two cats who think they own the world, and a fish tank with some really plump little fish and a pair of snails who are secretly ninja assassins.

In the course of her adventures, she has worked as a zookeeper, balloon artist, and substitute teacher. Now she enjoys writing books for teens who enjoy mystery and adventure as much as she does.

Check out Kristin’s website
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About the Book  

My head swam. I couldn't move my feet. I tried to breathe. The stays of my corset gripped too tight. I just couldn't breathe.

Desperate, I ran down the lane, but the fog confused me. I found myself in a small and quiet square. There was no place to run. I turned to face my attacker.

A man in a dark coat stalked down the lane beneath the skeletal trees. His face remained hidden behind his high collar and the brim of his hat. The mist swirled around him as he slowly raised the gun.

I was going to die.

When a fire consumes Meg's home, killing her parents and destroying both her fortune and her future, all she has left is the tarnished pocket watch she rescued from the ashes. But this is no ordinary timepiece. The clock turns out to be a mechanical key—a key only Meg can use— that unlocks a series of deadly secrets and intricate clues that Meg has no choice but to follow. She has uncovered evidence of an elite secret society and a dangerous invention that some will stop at nothing to protect, and that Meg alone can destroy. Together with the handsome stable hand she barely knows but hopes she can trust, Meg will be swept into a hidden world of deception, betrayal, and revenge. The clockwork key has unlocked her destiny.

Buy Legacy of the Clockwork Key on Amazon
Buy Legacy of the Clockwork Key on Indiebound 
Find Legacy of the Clockwork Key on Goodreads


  1. These are some great tips. The more you know about your world the more real it feels for a reader. I think the only caution for research is info dumping on any subject, but that is something to watch out for anyway.

  2. Great tips, Kristin. Thanks for sharing them with us! My favorite part of worldbuilding is finding the unexpected tension from using the world to offer challenges to the characters. I guarantee you that if I ever write a book set in Victorian London, some significant trauma to my characters will result from having to wait for the horse poo cart :D.

  3. Oooh, the book sounds interesting. Great tips, too. Now that I'm writing YA, I'm having to do world-building and it's intimidating. The next two series I have in mind involve quite a lot of world-building so I'm taking the tips where I can get them. Thanks!

  4. I'm definitely going to have to read your book, Kristen. I love the Victorian Era, especially if there's a mystery mixed in! Right now I'm reading the Mistborn trilogy, and am absolutely in awe of how detailed and *realistic* Sanderson's "magic" system is. Can't' imagine how much time that man spent on research. My novel begins in this world, but is in a new one by chapter three, which raises all sorts of issues with perspective that need addressing.. but where's the fun, without the challenge? Thank you for posting, they're such helpful tips!

  5. I've been worldbuilding my novel series for about ten years now. Long long time. And yet, I STILL add more to it all the time. My series is a science fiction story, so I really have been building up from square one.

    The one pitfall you have to be careful of while worldbuilding though involves story. Don't let the world become more important than the story. Then you end up with a world driven novel instead of a character driven or plot driven novel and you get a lot of random and pointless info dumps that add nothing to the story.

    To avoid that, I keep all my world building notes on a large document. Maybe someday I'll print the notes separate from the novels (like Tolkien did). In the meantime though, the notes are there to enhance the story, not to take it over. XD

  6. Hi, Kristin! Nice to see you here. Thanks for the great advice on worldbuilding! Your book sounds awesome. I saw the trailer for it and can't wait to read it!

  7. Hi everyone,

    I'm glad you found the article helpful. I absolutely agree that one of the traps of world building is trying to put too much in. That's what I was getting at with the reminder to keep an eye on the big picture. Your big picture of a novel is your plot and characters and your world building should only come in in details that are needed for your big picture.

    Thanks so much for having me here.


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