I don’t think I’ve ever consciously thought about how I go about creating a new world. I just do what I need to do; the world is just one more part of planning a new story. Now that I’m forced to consider my process, it’s become apparent that I use the same strategy each time. I’ll attempt to describe the process, but remember, this is my own process, and I doubt every writer goes about it the same way.
Generally, I start my world building early; in the planning process it’s second only to character creation in my mind. The world shapes your characters, their outlooks and their struggles. If you want to fully flesh out one, you need to flesh out the other. So, with the seed of an idea for a storyline, I’ll roughly set out my primary characters. Then I build the world around those bare characters. As I put more detail in to the world I’m able to put more detail into the characters. I may do another blog on how I go about building characters, but for now I’m focusing on world building.
Fig 1. Hand drawn map with mountains and borders
To start, I’ll freehand draw an outline of a map, usually a full continent, on A4 paper. The size of the paper is just convenience and has no bearing on the process. When I’m happy enough with the outline I’ll roughly position mountains, just a pencil outline, and add some borders. Once that’s done, I’ll add markers for major cities, and make some notes and that completes the initial portion of the freehand design process.
Any graphic designers and artists of a sensitive nature should really skip the next bit as you’ll probably cry. The next step is scanning the map onto a PC; I’m eternally grateful for scanners, it makes everything so much easier. My first foray into world building was slowed down by the lack of access to a scanner and so, my first world was painstakingly hand plotted into MS Paint. It worked out quite well, but it was incredibly time consuming. Once the map is stored safe and sound on computer, I’m done with the hand drawn map. I don’t toss them out though as you never know if they might be required again.
MS Paint is my tool of choice for working with the digital maps. I’m aware that there are far superior tools available but I’ve no need for more comprehensive editing programmes. Why use a missile, when a bullet will do just as well?
Fig 2. Cleaned up map with Cities and borders removed
The first thing I do once everything is digitized is clean up the coastal outline. This is a combination of replacing badly scanned and missing areas, and erasing random clutter; tedious but straight forward. Next, I’ll add the mountains. I have rough hand drawn mountains that I scanned some years ago and I copied a square of them and saved as a separate file. I just copy this template into the pre-drawn outlines and remove the excess. This was not the case in the above map as this was done before I made the template, but the result is more or less the same.
Next come the rivers, usually just several very large ones; there’s no point in going crazy. These will, as rivers tend to do, go from mountain range to sea, but not necessarily to the closest point. Rivers follow terrain, but I work it backwards, the course of my rivers inform me of the terrain they flow through. It’s easier that way.
This all sounds simple so far, and it is, but it’s just the foundation, a place to start and something to build on.