One of the tasks with writing that is simultaneously exhausting and exciting is building the world of the story. Whether it’s something modern, ancient or a far-flung place that doesn’t really exist, you need a sense of the world you’re telling the story in.
If it’s something grounded in fact, like a real life city or an medieval village on the shores of the mediterranean, you’ll need to do research. If you haven’t been there, the internet will tell you a lot of details, though artistic license can forgive a lot of details. Maps of places are fantastic for ensuring you don’t make location errors like the “Sydney, corner of Pitt and George”, though these aren’t obvious to anyone but locals. Invent a street, and you signal to the folk that live there that you’re acknowledging it’s just a story.
With your more fantastic places, there’s two things you can start with. A name and a map. A name gives it an immediate sense of being, plus means that anything you write becomes attached to that name. Get a feel for the size of the locations in your story, whether it’s taking place inside a spaceship, in the subways of a burgeoning Metropolis, or a failing ranch in America’s mid-west.
With the setting also comes some elements of the world, be it the level of technology, any types of supernatural or magical forces/beings, or even sociological factors like poverty, religion, addiction or crime. Don’t forget about the weather, either, whether it’s benign occurrences of rain and sunshine, extreme weather, or even other-worldly manifestations.
Imagine layouts. Come up with a list of known locations, whether they’re a part of the story or not. Bordering towns, close-by planets, far-flung lands, suburbs on the city fringes – all of those exist in your universe, so you may as well know what they are in case they become relevant. A map helps with this sort of thing, even if it’s very basic. You’re unlikely to put it directly in your story, but it helps with keeping track of where things are.
Your location needs to be aged, or lived in. Unless it’s come right off the assembly line or you have an alternate reason for it being new, there needs to be signs that it’s been around for a while. It also needs to let people live in it. You don’t need to show every bodily function taking place in your story, but there should be places for them to happen. Think about what counts for a mortal wound in your world, how people get their food, and what the dividing lines between the different parts of society. Rich or poor, powerful or weak, you ought to have a place for everyone that exists in your story.
Push the visuals where you can, even though it’s just through words. An uncommon pink sunset, a burst of a rainbow, buttes rising above haze hanging on steppes, and then whatever else can work. Even in the dreary places, make it special. Pretend fluorescent lights don’t exist outside of sketchy locations. Don’t neglect the other senses either – they’re just as vital in world-building. Imagine the world as if your only budget concern was the limit of your imagination.
Because that’s what the limit is.
The Short Version:
You need a world. Picture it. Name it. Choose your locations, and if helpful, map them. Consider technology, spirituality, wealth, discrimination, castes, classes, customs, and more such sociological elements.
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