Back to Basics: World-Building in an Established Universe

Creativity Sessions writing process. Evening Satellite Publishing.

I’m late! I intended to finish this post on Tuesday night, but that obviously didn’t work out. I’ve gotten away with writing entire posts the night before for a while, but it finally caught up to me. Anyway…

As you all may know, I’ve been working on two short stories this year together called “The Herb Witch Tales”. While these take place in the same fantasy universe as my first novel, I’m working with completely new characters, in a different time, and in a different region. I’m in new world-building territory for the first time in years.

This has raised some intriguing questions as I try to develop a story with the same richness of setting as the first.

The Established Universe

Calling my fantasy universe “established” is a stretch to any outsider — it’s not like there are fan sites dedicated to my stories. But to me, consistency has always been important. My one rule with world-building is that I cannot contradict or retcon my own stories. If a story has been published and presents factual information about my world, that is canon.

Obviously, the way particular characters perceive the world around them is always rooted in subjectivity. But if one book says that a certain event happens in year X, or spells a major character’s name that way, I’m not going to mess with that just for a new story’s convenience. With each new story, I now have to think about where in spacetime the story fits into my larger universe.

Asking the Right Questions

Here’s a list of questions, in no particular order, I’ve had to ask myself and answer while planning and drafting “The Herb Witch Tales”.

  • In what year does it take place?
  • What was happening that year — in canon?
  • Should I make this several years later, closer to this particular event?
  • What do these folks call themselves, as a group?
  • How do they feed and clothe themselves?
  • How do they build their dwellings?
  • Who leads their community?
  • Do they speak a different language than everyone else?
  • Is their dialect somehow different?
  • What’s so special about herbs to this woman?
  • Is she the only one who knows herbs?
  • How do others view her herbaceous leanings?

Okay, I’ll stop there. Those seem like pretty basic questions, but they are critical to building a lived-in world around the characters and plot. The last three questions are quite specific to these stories and the protagonist, but they still play into larger themes of culture, economics, and knowledge.

What does this society value, and how do they ingrain that value in their children? In this case, the protagonist, Mikaela, learns her herbalism from her mother. Great. What does she do with her skills, and how does this shape her identity relative to the other characters?

Thus, what began as a wider world-building exercise ends up shaping the character herself. Asking questions like this about your story and your characters is pivotal to understanding them beyond the words on the page.

It gives them substance that your readers will absolutely pick up on. It implicitly answers some of the why and how questions that leave readers wanting to know more. That’s what keeps them coming back to delve deeper and deeper into the details.

Back to Basics

In case you can’t tell, I’ve loved being able to return to my world-building roots, even if I have some established lore to jump off. I’ll admit, it was difficult at first to start with basically no information about this particular story. I only knew where it took place and around what time. But that has given me the opportunity to create something new and different from what I’ve written before.

I can also weave the tiny, invisible threads that connect all of my stories, and that’s the whole point: to not only establish the universe, but to live in it and discover all of its pathways.

Part two of these stories has presented even more opportunity for me to explore not only these characters and their culture, but also how it mingles with other characters of different cultures.

Their world is expanding, and so is mine.

Steve D

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