I remember a particular interaction I had with another author at a NaNoWriMo event. He was a bit older, wiser, and had been throwing down science-fiction since the early aughts. I went to him to commiserate and, hopefully, learn a thing or two for my own journey. I told him about The Gray Wars, about my galaxy-spanning yarn, and how I felt particularly proud of a few pieces of world-building.
He asked where people smelt the metals to be used in starships.
I was flummoxed, as I had no clue where the forges would be in my galaxy. The more he pried, the more I realized a lot of my world-building was just set dressing. The more I talked with him, the more I understood that MOST world-building ends up as just cover for exposition. Worlds are difficult, complicated things, and building them takes more planning than just a few lines in a story.
A great example that comes to mind is root beer. In Max Brooks’ seminal work “World War Z,” he describes at length the enormous logistical problem of creating root beer in a post-apocalyptic world. We take for granted (those of us living in Western countries) how easy it is to get items from all around the world. We can go to a single store and collect vanilla from Madagascar, salt from Utah, avocados from Mexico, and oranges from Georgia. All out of season, too.
Think about your own stories, your own worlds. Your hero, presumably, has a sword, right. Wait, does your hero not have a sword? I’ve got a whole lot of stuff to talk about, but I will stop this journey cold if you’re trying to tell me you didn’t think to put a goddamn sword in your MC’s hands. How are they going to defend themselves against the dragons?
YOU DON’T HAVE DRAGONS IN YOUR STORY? ARE YOU EVEN WRITING A BOOK!?!
Anyway, let’s assume your character has a sword (or will soon, KYLE). Where was the sword made? Where was the metal mined? Is the hilt local or foreign wood? Did the blacksmith have any particular skill, or is it roughshod? Is it a sword of some notoriety? If so, how? What battles did it fight in? Why were they important? Who was the previous owner? Did they have a dog? ANSWER ME, KYLE!
World-building involves asking a lot of questions, many of which you will never answer. In fact, I don’t expect any of that to make it into the story. The reader doesn’t need those details to understand the journey. But you, as the writer and creator, need to know. You need to see how every interaction affects the world you’ve crafted. When you kill off a village, what happens to the region? When your starship crashes down on a populated moon, how does that affect interplanetary commerce? When Voxar the All-Burning Dragonwyrm unleashes hell upon the hapless citizens of Golgothia, how does this affect the price of ale in Jimmiburg?
Again, you don’t need to answer this in the text, at least if it isn’t pertinent to the journey. But you should think about these things, and know enough to answer an obsessive fan at Comic Con. Because that’s what’s at stake.
Always be write!