On Friday Tamith asked some interesting questions about world building:
I don't know if this has been asked before, but how much world-building do you recommend someone do before they get into a novel? I'm fleshing out a YA Fantasy, and I'm not sure if I should have all the details in place beforehand, or make things up on an as-need basis. Or should just being aware of character motivation be my main concern? What do you usually do?
What I usually do is fast but thorough. My writing schedule doesn't allow me the luxury of spending years in the construction phase of world building, so I build rapidly. I also like to know more about my world than the reader ever will, so I always build more than I spell out in the novel.
I make the time constraint and my need-to-know work together by taking only what I need from essential research sources and convert it into a cohesive, precise outline versus detail mapping or writing out tons and tons of research notes from nine hundred different sources that I then have to reread and condense in my head before I write. Think fast, bold strokes (and this approach will probably not work for all world builders, especially indecisive or organic writers.)
Here's my checklist for any world building, regardless of genre:
I. Define your world
a. Name the present age or time period
b. Review or invent the history for your world
b. Review or create the major sentient players, their origins, history, cultures and language
c. Work out the major players' habitats and socio-political status
d. Review or invent this time period's major conflict(s), encumbrance(s) and achievement(s) as they relate to your major players
e. Review or invent a biosphere and name your major flora, fauna and climate conditions as they relate to your major players
f. Define what technologies (real or magic) are available and who uses them
g. Chart the timeline of the your story plot in how it affects this world
II. Define your protagonist
a. Create a personal profile: name, description, personal history, relatives, current life situation, strengths, flaws, etc.
b. Outline how your protagonist relates to his world as relevant to the story
c. Outline how your protagonist relates to the other characters in the story
d. Outline how your protagonist reacts and responds to the conflict in the story
III. Define your antagonist
(same as the protag)
IV. Define your support cast
a. Create a simple profile for each of the secondary characters
b. Define your cast as to how they relate to your protagonist and antagonist and their own corner of this world.
c. Outline a simply timeline of what each secondary character does in the story
a. Select and develop a reasonable number of the major players' most interesting cultural aspects to highlight in the story
b. List the most obvious similarities and contrasts between this world and ours to highlight in the story
c. Define your characters' most unique personal quality/qualities to highlight in your characterizations
How much is enough?
How detailed you want to get with your world building is really up to you, but try to make your building fit naturally. The authors who build the best worlds are the ones you never notice doing it (and I've got a list of books below of writers who are masters at this.) Don't feel compelled to give up world building aspects that you love just because they're not on my checklist, either. If you're able to relate your vision of your world to the reader without drowning them in floods of infodumps, go for it.
As for me, probably the most reliable resource I've used is my own knowledge of history and biology through reading nonfiction. Once you've studied enough real civilizations, cultures and species you get a feel for what you need to make the ones that inhabit your worlds more believable.
Books I recommend as superlative examples of world building:
Valley of Horses by Jean M. Auel
The Ice People by René Barjavel, translated by Charles Lam Markmann (in French, La Nuit des Temps)
Mordred, Bastard Son by Douglas Clegg
Talyn and Diplomacy of Wolves by Holly Lisle
Kingdom of the Wall and Man in the Maze by Robert Silverberg
Astrofantasy's step-by-step online tutorial Create a Fantasy World.
Tina Morgan's article The Ethics of Worldbuilding
Holly Lisle's Questions about World Building page and How Much of My World Do I Build workshop (Tamith, if my checklist doesn't work for you, Holly's workshop may be just the thing you need.)
SpecFicWorld's World Building Resource Links page
A transcription of a World Building 101 panel with Robert R. McCammon and Jennifer Roberson
Steven Swiniarski's WorldBuilding: Constructing a SF Universe