World building can be one of the most challenging parts of writing any story. There’s a balance between creating the world your characters live in and not slowing down the story for too long to explain any point to your author. In shorter works it’s easier to find that balance because you have such a limited amount of time to set up the characters, set up the problem, and finish the story in a satisfactory manner. Longer works give you more freedom with the number of words you have to work with, but no one likes a story that comes to a dead stop and lectures the reader for half a chapter. Similarly, a book that begins with about twelve pages of world building will be used for fire building at the next cookout.
I’m still figuring out that balance. The rub is when I’m writing a story that’s very ambitious and requires not just creating the world my characters inhabit, but also figuring out the rules, working out how the characters live and survive in this world, making all of the little rules that counteract the major rules, and really just trying to create the level of literary detail that makes reading the story as enriching and entertaining as strapping on the VR goggles and finding yourself in solitary confinement. As I’m writing the story, the weight of all of that responsibility suddenly kills any enthusiasm I had for the story and I wind up putting it to one side.
And it’s real easy to say, “Just write the story and work out the details later.” Or, “Do the research on the parts you don’t know and the readers will except the rest.”
Unfortunately, people are never so forgiving. Once they make up their minds, changing them is next to impossible. I’ve had people who only read the first chapter of a book that would definitely have required a bit of world building, but because it was the first chapter I didn’t think there was a real rush to cram it all in the first five pages, only to refuse to read the rest because they were so caught up on the one detail I didn’t share when they believed it was necessary. And the thing is, if I shared that detail, a little bit of the mystery would have gone away. The detail was coming up but the readers (members of a writing group that I’m no longer apart of) didn’t want to wait that long. Yes, writers didn’t want to wait to read the rest of the story before deciding that a detail I left out was a mistake and not essential to the rest of the story (Admittedly, I’ve jumped to those same conclusions, so I can’t be too high and mighty about this, but I’m working on that).
For the record, World Building isn’t unique to fantasy and science fiction, even though it’s most often associated with those genres. It’s probably easier to explain world building in a fantasy context, because Lewis, Tolkein, Martin and Herbert are all examples of people who had to build elaborate worlds with rich mythologies and histories for the characters in their respective worlds to inhabit. But world building can also include the very local and far more accessible world of somewhere like, say, Melbourne, Australia.
I know considerably less about Melbourne than I know about Westeros of Game of Thrones – and I don’t know much about Westeros. But I’m reading Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series, which is set in contemporary Melbourne. Someone born and raised there probably doesn’t need a lot of world building to know about the world that baker-turned-reluctant-amateur-sleuth Corrina inhabits. But Kerry Greenwood does a great job of not alienating readers from the other corners of the globe and because Melbourne is a real place with real locations and real names of streets, the reader probably doesn’t ask too many questions and takes for granted that these things are a part of the world Corrina and company inhabits.
The part where Kerry really starts to world build is when Corrina is describing her apartment building, which is also where her bakery is located. It’s a building that is heavily inspired by Roman architecture, complete with Roman furniture that the owners of the apartments are within their right to keep or toss once the documents are signed. Each apartment is named for a Roman deity, which conveniently corresponds to the mannerisms of the character who lives there.
World building is a lot easier when it’s a place that exists, or could exist, in the real world. Maybe that’s why cozy mysteries sell so well, because they take place in a time or place that people feel they could actually visit and feel comfortable.