Whether you’re building a fantasy world from complete scratch, or mentally designing the suburban house your very realistic story will take place in, at a certain point in your writing process you’ll need to plan out your story world. Here are a few world-building research methods to get you started:
Ask anything and everything you can about your world. Each story will require different lines of inquiry. Listen to your story and follow the questions it seems to want you to investigate. What kind of car did your main character’s grandpa drive? How was the president elected? Why is everyone so obsessed with peanuts? The answers might appear in the story you’ve already written, in your imagination, or you may have to delve deeper into your research to find them. For a complete list of questions to ask yourself as you build your world, check out the World-Building Checklist in my Free Resource Library.
Draw a Map or Create a Model
Is your story world so complicated it’s making your head spin? Get out paper or other materials and make a visual representation of it. This could mean making a floor plan of your main character’s house, or mapping out an entire town, country, or kingdom. Physically creating your world is research in itself, but it can also guide you to new lines of questioning. You might discover that your story world contains a lot of lakes, or elk, or antiques, which in turn pushes you to research craters, or migratory patterns, or the history of antiques, which then leads you back to questions about meteors, or a lineage of hunters, or a family history of con artists, etc.
You may need to read history books, watch documentaries, conduct interviews, research online, or conduct first-hand research to get your questions answered. If your story takes place in Kansas and you’ve never been there, you could plan a trip, watch movies or read books set in Kansas, or talk to people who have lived there. Remember to record sensory details as well as facts. How does the air feel? What colors are prominent?
Want more world-building help? Download a free printable World Building Checklist in my Free Resource Library!
No matter what research method you use, take lots of notes. These can be straightforward recordings of the facts, or more creative expressions of what you encounter. Maybe something you stumble across will inspire you to write a poem, make a drawing, take a photo, create a mood board, or outline a new character. Keep in mind that your best ideas might come when you’re not actively researching, so keep a notebook or device nearby to record ideas that pop up when you’re not expecting them.
Use Your Own Experiences, Opinions, Ideas, and Imagination
Research doesn’t just mean looking into what other people say, think, or feel about a time, place, or topic. It can also mean exploring your own thoughts and perceptions! Say you’re researching a story that takes place in Oklahoma during the Great Depression. You’ll want to read history books, conduct interviews, watch films and documentaries, read novels set in that time period, research online, and perhaps even travel. But while you’re doing this, also pay attention to how you think and feel about the information you’re gathering. What details stand out to you? Does something you encounter make you mad? Why? What interests you about this time and place—and what bores you to tears?
When to Stop Researching
Some writers absolutely love story building… to the point that they never want to stop researching and actually write or revise their story! If you notice you’re procrastinating by languishing in the research stage, it’s time to get back to your story. As you return to the writing, you’ll probably find that you need go back to story building, then back to the writing, then to story building again. So don’t be too nervous about putting down your research: You can always go back and revise your world if you need to.
Of course, it’s completely acceptable to be obsessed with story building. All writers have their own attachments—elements of story telling that they love above all others. Some people get obsessed with a character, a plot, a setting, a theme… So if you’re a writer who loves your worlds, don’t be afraid to own it. Lots of amazing writers— especially science fiction and fantasy writers—are known for being huge world building geeks. If that’s what excites you, indulge! Just be aware of when you might be using it as a crutch because you’re nervous about composing or revising your story, and challenge yourself to move on—knowing, of course, that you can always come back to it if you need to.