Wednesday, August 28, 2013

World Books

Building a world and maintaining it requires a storyteller to collect a great many construction materials, and to keep these tidy and always ready for use it's good to create a world-building notebook. This can be in hard copy or virtual form, and doesn't necessary have to be in notebook format; you may choose to go at it via individual documents and electronic folders, or some sort of notes organization program, or even your own private wiki. In all things world-building, do what works for you.

I'm a traditional type, and I've worked out of physical, largely handwritten notebooks for so long that they're still the most comfortable fit for me, so that's my approach. I keep notebooks on individual books, bibles on ongoing series and (most recently) notebooks devoted strictly to the world-building itself. Once I thought as I got older I might do less in the way of notebooks, but I'm finding I'm doing more. My notebooks aren't just reference sources for my work, they've become my story journals and my construct workbooks; with them I can actively tinker on my world-building as well as chronicle my processes.

This is the current world-building notebook for Disenchanted & Co. It's morphed quite a few times over the last four years, but this most recent incarnation deals with eight primary topics: Architecture, Characters, Cover Art, Ephemera, Magic, Setting, Visuals and World-Specific. To give you an idea of how this sort of notebook can change over time, my World-Specific section used to be titled Language. Maintaining a glossary for my invented American-British slang was the original purpose of that section. By the time I finished writing The Clockwork Wolf, however, I had compiled so many other details of my own invention (social customs, mechanical oddities etc.) that I needed to shift those into the Language section and retitle it.

Here's a spread from the Architecture section on a hanging gas lamp:

The lamp was one I spotted at a local restaurant and photographed as a possible model for a counterpart in my world. Once I studied the image and thought about it, I began making notes. I liked the distinctive shape of the flame, the outside copper housing and the little front access door, so I played with those ideas as to how they might work in my universe. I could see these being used in cramped, narrow public spaces where a standing gaslamp might not be convenient, and I could imagine vagrants or street urchins taking advantage of the ready access to the flames by standing on a crate, opening the door and toasting hunks of cheese or other foods on sticks over the flame.

In my Ephemera section I keep all the maddening miscellaneous details that don't quite fit anywhere else. Here's a page with three assorted images:

The scram pendant, which is an actual piece I purchased from Etsy seller Sparrow Salvage, will probably play a significant role in a future story; the bone fetish is a mock-up I put together for my editor, and the blue cape is an early incarnation of a feature of one character's dress (the final version is in the character section.)

In the Setting section I keep all the details of my story locations, including specific furnishings, like Gladys here:

Gladys is Docket's hardware cabinet, and she's yet to be introduced so I still might tinker on her a bit. I saw her at a steampunk show and immediately knew she belonged to Docket. On her page I wrote a physical description, along with a list of what I thought Docket might keep in her, and even where her name came from. She's not flashy, our Gladys, but she's interesting and fits beautifully into that corner of my universe.

One thing I've also gotten into the habit of doing with all my notebooks is to use dividers with pockets. Here's why:

These are some cabinet cards I've used as inspiration for characters in the series, as I mentioned in this post. I don't want to punch holes in them, so the pocketed divider comes in very handy for that sort of material. Also works great to store note-sized pieces of paper or other bits too small for the binder's rings.

What material I do add to my world-building notebook depends on a couple of things:

1. Is it something I need to adapt, tinker on or otherwise spend more time working into my universe? Keeping details in progress all together saves me from having to hunt them down and prevents me from forgetting about them (a common form of amnesia among series writers.)

2. Will I need to reference this material again in the future? It's a good idea to have on central repository of anything (i.e. language, settings, character quirks) that is not only specific to your world but that is likely to be repeated in future stories.

3. Will it help take me back to Toriana? That sounds a bit odd, I know, but another of the world-building notebook's purposes for me is universe re-immersion. While I love Disenchanted & Co., I live in this world, and I don't think about Toriana 24/7. Before I begin working on a new novel I will go through my world-building notebook, not only to refresh my memory on specific details but to remind myself of the language and characters and general look and feel of my universe.

Your world-building notebook should be customized to your own preferences, too. If you'd rather focus your notebook on characters, plot, timelines or any other story aspect, you should. Your notebook serves you, not the other way around, so dn't think you have to follow my example pages -- set it up the way you want it to work.

One final fun aspect of creating a world-building notebook is the portability of it; you can take it with you to the library, when you travel or just when you want to do your writing elsewhere. For those of you who are considering joining in National Novel Writing Month this November, a world-building notebook can be a quick and easy way to keep track of all the details you'll need to follow-up on once you've reached 50K, too.


  1. Fascinating post, Lynn. And I especially love the fact that the notebook can (and probably should?) morph over time as the author's needs change.

    Thank you for sharing this!

    1. Thanks, Peggy. In the past I've neglected to point out how my novel notebooks evolve over time, but I've been tinkering on this one for so long now it's in an almost perpetual state of flux. :)

      I think if you use a notebook for set/unchanging story data and elements you probably won't need to alter it much, or if you do it'll only be to add novel-specific info to it versus changing what you've already collected.

  2. I love the picture on the front of your notebook! And thanks for this post and the photos. I'm a visual/tactile person and it helps to see things rather than just read about them. Maybe now, I can give this a try. Even a pantser needs a bible :)

    1. I use a lot of visual references in all my notebooks, Theo, because I'm like you -- I need to see it and brood over it and (in the case of some fabrics and other physical ephemera) handle it. I think this would work for a pantser, too, to collect maybe after-the-fact info on chapters already written?

  3. Like nightsmusic, I love the picture of the front of your notebook. Its very striking. I stand in awe of all creative types especially when I see the amount of work that goes into creating the world, never mind telling the story.

    1. I found the cover image on the internet somewhere, Fran, and copied it as a visual reference for a big plot point in The Clockwork Wolf. It also gives me a huge nudge to reset my modern brain to steampunk Victorian mentality whenever I work on the notebook. :)

  4. How would you recommend playing catchup with a world building book? I've been away from a world for almost two years now and my publisher wants me to revisit it, but I'm afraid I'm going to screw it all up (if that makes sense).

    My notes were detailed, but lost in my final military move to retirement.

    1. I think you can try to recover your world-building with a couple of different approaches, Dawn. See which one of these sound like the best fit for what you remember:

      Put together an outline of your world-building using what you recall now. You don't have to worry about nailing on the details; use broad strokes. Then, once you have what you recall down on paper, separate it into your individual world-building elements and focus on them, one at a time, to develop your notes in more detail.

      Start from scratch and rebuild your world from the foundation concept, adding what you remember as you go along re-imagine this universe. This sounds like a lot more work (and in some ways it is) but all of the notes you lost are probably still in your mind somewhere, and going through the process again from the beginning may help them re-emerge.

      Use writing templates and worksheets as prompts and fill in what you know, and then work from them to redevelop the world. Often using the fill-in-the-blank approach can help you retrieve ideas that you think are lost, and it also narrows your focus.

      If you have any source material to draw on, like old stories (even if they're partials) read through those, too. I know the prospect of recreating all that work you did in the past seems daunting, but storytellers have very unique writing memories. I find that very often when I rewrite something I've lost and then later find the original, they're almost a perfect match -- or I've improved on the original idea.

    2. Thank you for your suggestions!

      Of them all, I think starting from scratch while looking through my source material (partials and the novel already out) will be the best way to go. I tried using writing templates and worksheets to fill in what I know, but my frustration and doubt kept paralyzing me. I would write something and then get frustrated, wondering if that was "right".

      As a reader there's nothing I hate more than following an author's world they've created and then watching them break their own rules without a valid reason.

      By "starting from scratch" I think that'll completely wipe away the "but what if this is wrong?" questions I've been asking myself. If I compare it with my writing, making whatever changes required to stay true to the at least the first novel, it might make it more solid than before.

      I honestly didn't think to try it this way. You've given me hope!

      Thank you so much.

    3. I'm so happy this worked for you, Dawn (I always have that hope, but like every writer my processes are definitely not that one-size-fits all.) Good luck with the recovery work.