Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Fun with Setting

Because I do so much planning and prep work before I write a single word of a novel, I write up hundreds of pages of notes, outlines, character profiles, thread diagrams, setting specifics and plot schematics. I used to keep these in binders and file them away once I finished production on the corresponding novel, but then I started returning to worlds I'd already created in previous books and needed to pull them out and refresh my memory.

I don't like writing the same setting over and over, so when I needed to revisit a world I'd pull out my notebooks, read what I'd already done and build with that in mind as a foundation. When it became obvious that I'd be writing multiple stories set on K-2 and a couple of worlds in its surrounding solar system, I decided to split out all my setting notes in one separate notebook to keep straight what I'd done and what I planned to do.

I wasn't happy with just a big collection of notes, so when I decided to do another setting notebook for another multiple-story world (Joren) I wrote a little travelogue-type book for myself about the planet and made up a nice cover for it:

(You can tell this is one I wrote for myself because I misspelled planetary on the cover and never bothered to correct it.)

That was nice, and very organized, but it lacked something. To me a world isn't just about the physical characteristics, it's also about the people who have lived there. So when it became obvious I needed a setting notebook for my dome colony world Trellus, I decided to have a bit more fun with it. Along with my notes, maps and sketches I wrote a brief history of the colony, from the day the first settlers touched down to seizure and shutdown of the colony's infamous mining operations.

While the process evolved mostly from my need to be hyperorganized, by having some fun with the settings and treating them like subjects all on their own, I found the worlds became more real to me. I don't use everything I write in my setting notebooks in my stories, but I think making them has allowed me to write about the settings with a bit more enthusiasm than my usual attitude of "Why can't everything happen in a featureless void?"

I don't recommend every writer write a separate book on their settings for themselves, as that would likely take up too much time you can use for writing the actual novel. But it doesn't hurt to experiment with the ways you put together and maintain your settings. They're a bit like gardens -- the more you plant and tend to them, the more wonderful stuff will grow.

What are some of the things you do to flesh out your settings and keep track of what you've built for worlds you revisit? Let us know in comments.


  1. I have a detailed full-color digital map that's very precise in places, and very empty in others, because I usually don't think about the details until I need to create them. I also have a long, and constantly expanding, list of timeline data that includes births, deaths, governmental, wartime, technological, character milestone, and other information that's been mentioned in the books, or is part of a backstory I need to tie down.

    That's really about all I have for background and worldbuilding files. Mostly I make it all up as I go, just keeping the previous books events in mind so that I don't contradict myself.

  2. I've installed a copy of mediawiki (the software that runs wikipedia) on my computer, and use it to keep an encyclopedia of all my worlds. Articles on interesting snippets of history, important characters (whether or not they actually make it as far as a story), locations, and even concepts I need to know about but often forget the details of (e.g., I have a story that's set on a number of rotating space stations; I have an article in there on how to calculate how fast the station needs to rotate based on how big it is and how much gravity will be provided).

  3. Anonymous6:46 AM

    You should consider using a service like Lulu.com to self-publish these settings notebooks Fans and newbie writers might be interested.

    That's assuming your publisher wouldn't want to put them out, since it's probably a much smaller market. Although maybe your publisher wouldn't be okay with you doing it independently through Lulu.com? Don't know how the rights issues would sort out on something like that...

  4. Anonymous7:35 AM

    I usually write a series of short stories for each place and each time. It can sometimes get a little bit hairy when you have stories set in the same place, but in different times. It might as well be a different place then. Writing a few short stories not only helps to flesh out the world, but can also be useful for establishing the backstory. Doing it this way has some interesting side effects though. :P Once, the collection of short stories I did to get a feel for the world drew FAR more positive feedback than the actual story did. :P It was still fun to do though, and I'll continue to do it. It's fun. :)

  5. I haven't written a book on it, but I do keep a cheat sheet of important info. Most of my settings have been real but with a difference, so most of that deals with what's different and what that affects.

  6. Anonymous9:37 AM

    I'm still working on this. I have that "featureless void" mentality, too. *G* I think it's because I have trouble visualizing. That said, the dangerous book is set in *gasp* the contemporary world, but of course not America because that would be too easy. ;)

    I have been there and have over a thousand photos from my trip (a collective effort, I assure you) as well as wonderfully visceral memories to translate.

  7. I *love* this idea and wish I had more artistic talent so I could paint/draw my settings. I have a private (free) wordpress blog that I use now to keep track of large character casts, but I haven't really done much with setting.

  8. For my made up world, I've got colored maps of varying scales, as well as floor plans of farms, houses, and castles. I will probably start keeping the timeline as it's getting rather complicated. With the move from desktop to laptop I lost my link to my wiki, but am thinking of switching to PBWiki, I've used it for work and it's pretty user friendly.

  9. You're scary. *g*

    I like Greg's idea. I think a lot of your readers would love your notes on your worldbuilding.

    I just keep the usual notes/file with the story outline, but now Jules has me intrigued by the mediawiki. I have a fantasy/romance series idea that requires far more worldbuilding depth than I usually do.

  10. Anonymous12:26 PM

    notes. lots and lots of notes.

    Your organizational skills are almost frightening to a non-organized type such as myself.

  11. Anonymous3:07 PM

    I wish you'd share your notes with us. I always have questions (which I am sure you know the answers to) which are not addressed in your books.

    Also, could you update your backlist? I finally got my local library system to stock more of your books (up from a couple titles to 16 over the last year) and I'd like to keep on top of them to get the entire Stardoc and Darkyn series.

  12. I just make stuff up as I go. Later, I try to remember what I made up, hopelessly searching for keywords and flipping through pages. Eventually I realize I didn't actually write what I thought.

    Yeah, I can see how a separate notebook would be useful. Thanks for another round of inspiration.

  13. Anonymous8:19 PM

    As an aside, I just finally finished Incarnatio, and *SQUEEEE!* Gah! LOVE LOVE LOVED it.

    (I've always been a Jamys groupie. *G*)

  14. Unfortunately for me, I'm a pantser. I had to force myself to use OneNote and I still don't always look there when I can't remember something. It is a great thing for keeping all the internet things I find because I can click a button and send them to OneNote from the browser.

    I did invest in Liquid Story Binder. Six months ago. Thinking it would be just the ticket. I'm still trying to figure out how to use it...



  15. Greg wrote: You should consider using a service like Lulu.com to self-publish these settings notebooks Fans and newbie writers might be interested.

    I think that would be akin to publishing my grocery lists. Which, will riveting to me, would probably put everyone else to sleep. :)

  16. Serena wrote: I wish you'd share your notes with us. I always have questions (which I am sure you know the answers to) which are not addressed in your books.

    I don't mind sharing writing techniques, ideas, and occasionally pointing out something specific about one of my stories, but I am more territorial when it comes to specific notes, plans, plots and that sort of thing. This is more for legal purposes than anything; I have to protect my copyright, and sometimes the only way you can prove something is yours is to show the process by which you wrote it, which is another reason for the notebooks.

    I do try to answer burning questions readers have when they e-mail me, but at times they ask for so much information that I don't really feel comfortable answering. It's a bit like being a magician and being asked to demonstrate how you pull off all your tricks. Some things need to remain a mystery in order for them to work.

    Also, could you update your backlist?

    That's one of my projects for January. Thanks for requesting my books at your library, I do appreciate it.

  17. Oh yum - a travelogue for Joren! Please, I want a ticket to go there!

  18. I keep a notebook for Maxie's Book, but I hadn't thought about keeping a general setting book for a series. Keep up with the blog. I may learn how to do things up right.



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