Last week, I talked about my approach to worldbuilding and emphasized that knowing solid worldbuilding techniques is more important than how you specifically worldbuild. But, that doesn’t mean specific tools and methods aren’t important—you have to utilize something if you want results. So today’s post is about all of my favorite worldbuilding resources as well as my specific methods of using them. Best of all, nearly everything is free.
One of the most useful worldbuilding tools is also the most likely to plunge you into procrastination, so using Pinterest requires self-control. However, it’s an amazing way to compile information and gain a visual sense of what your story looks like. Pinterest is an online social-media platform where you can create collections or “boards” of pictures. It’s commonly used for DIY projects, recipes, and fashion, but many writers use it to compile storyboards and character boards. There’s a plethora of beautiful photographs to choose from and organizational options to create sub-categories within your own boards. The boards you create become a collection of worldbuilding information that you can reference during character development, outlining, and writing prose. For instance, I’ve referenced my story boards while writing in order to craft vivid descriptions of the environment or atmosphere of a scene. It’s easier than searching through Google Images and saving pictures you like to a folder on your computer.
- Excel (or equivalent)
No fancy math skills required—Excel spreadsheets are a perfect way to compile all your story info in an easily accessible and organized space. It’s a free program on computers with Microsoft software (Apple devices come with a similar program called “Numbers”). For worldbuilding specifically, I like to use spreadsheets to make timelines for historical events in my worlds’ past and to calculate dates and times. The flexibility of the program makes it easy to add or delete information and or to reorganize the order of the items on my lists. And, as a bonus, Excel is also great for any other story information you have: character lists, plotting, specific settings, or family trees. Excel is user-friendly and the basic functions are easy to learn through online tutorials or playing around with the different features.
- Spotify (or equivalent)
Much like how writers use Pinterest to create storyboards, many writers use free music streaming services like Spotify to create story playlists. I’ve found this to be a useful worldbuilding tool in a more abstract sense, although for historical or contemporary novels it’s a great way of compiling what music would have been popular during the time of the story. For worlds that are a little less realistic, creating a story playlist is a great way to figure out the ambiance and mood of the world, to create what sort of music they might make, and to find inspiration through the styles or lyrics of songs. It’s a fun way to add depth to your story that isn’t research-heavy—although, like Pinterest, exercising self-control is key unless you want to get sucked into playlists for hours on end.
- Baby naming sites
Baby naming sites are more commonly cited for character development (for good reason), but they’re also a great way to reinforce the culture(s) of your world and come up with names for cities, monuments, land markers, regions, countries, and neighborhoods—especially if you don’t want to create new names for everything in your world. Sites like Nameberry and Behind the Name have hundreds of lists to choose from, whether by style, language or origin, similarity, or meaning. If you either have a specific country or time period for your story or are drawing inspiration from a culture/time period/country, you can easily find lists of names that fit the bill. Because many places in our world are either named after people, events, words, or their appearance, using “people names” is a great way to give your world a bit of realism. There are also sites, such as the U.S. Social Security’s site, that list the most popular names in a time period, region, or decade that can be handy depending on the genre of story you’re writing.
- Office supplies
This is the only item on the list that isn’t free, although most writers have stacks of notebooks, pens, pencils, papers, and binders somewhere in their houses; consequently, it’s probably my favorite item on this list. A simple piece of paper and a pen is all you need to create a map, a national flag, a family tree, graphs and charts, a timeline, or fashion sketches. These simple items require the most creativity, but also get you the most hands-on in creating and knowing your world (except, perhaps, for research). They’re also the most flexible—no matter your genre, length of story, or goals, you can create a method that works for you. I’ll explain more of how I use them under the “methods” section of this post.
I’ve described each of these methods briefly under the resources list above, but specifics are always better. Below are brief overviews of how I go about using the resources above to worldbuild.
- Storyboards (Pinterest)
When creating storyboards, I always focus on the aesthetic details that I imagine and, much like my worldbuilding method, I expand the web from there. For example, if I know that I’m creating a fantasy world that’s heavily influenced by 17th century France, I’ll search for 17th century French architecture, landscapes, and fashion. I intuitively know what I want the world to look like, so I only pin pictures that are pleasing to my eye. If I also know there will be elements of magic or fantastical creatures, I search for those as well. There are often storyboards that have similar aesthetics that are great ways to quickly find pictures you want. Once I’ve accumulated anywhere from 3o to 50 pins, I go to my board and take in what I’ve saved. Is there an aesthetic already emerging? What colors are there? What’s the mood? If there’s anything that stands out in a bad way, I delete the pin. I continue this process in short spurts (since I don’t use Pinterest every day) until I’ve created a board that captures my growing vision of what the storyworld looks like. The boards I create often morph and change over time as I do worldbuilding outside of Pinterest, but I often refer to the pictures and mood when I finally get to the writing portion of the process and need to know precisely what I’m describing in my prose.
I also use Pinterest boards for research purposes, especially when I’m developing a world that’s heavily based on or directly related to cultures in our world. I use the feature to create sub-boards within a larger board for board worldbuilding categories—food, fashion, architecture, natural landscape, etc.—then search for relevant information. If, for example, I was writing a historical fiction novel about 17th century France, I would look for examples of the foods they ate, clothing they wore, holidays and celebrations they observed, literature they published, quotes from historical figures at the time, etc. The result has the same benefit of being a visual, aesthetic representation of what I plan to write, while also substituting some of the research I would have to do for historical accuracy.
- Creating maps
If you’re lucky enough to write a story that’s set in a real country, region, or city, then creating a map means a search on Google images. But if you’re creating any sort of fictional world—whether it’s a fake small town set in modern day, a fantasy world, a new country, or the futuristic Earth—you’ll have to figure out the layout of the land. A whole post could be dedicated to how to create maps and I’m no expert, but how I go about creating them is fairly simple. If it’s an entirely new place, I can start from scratch; if it’s based on existing geography, I have to determine the landscape and position on the globe before beginning. I start with a blank sheet of paper and sketch a rough estimate of what I imagine the section of the world I’m mapping to be—whether it’s a town, a city, a country, or a continent. I use light pencil so I can easily erase and re-arrange my ideas. If, for example, you were creating the blueprint of the house your protagonist lives in, you’d decide the square footage, how many stories, then how you imagine the layout to be—where’s the bedroom? How big’s the kitchen? Do they have a yard? For something larger—like a town or city—I first figure out the landscape (hills? flatlands? rivers? forests?), then draw the roads, and then draw the buildings.
Entire continents or countries are much harder, but I begin by only creating the major features—coastlines, territorial borders, rivers and lakes, mountains, major cities, and major roadways/means of travel. Subsequent maps can go into more detail or you can create smaller maps for each city or region. The point is to figure out a) where important places are in relationship to each other and b) how the natural landscape is going to influence the weather, roads, and layout of the area. This grounds your story (no pun intended) and makes it easier for you to know what you’re doing and what’s likely to influence the culture, history, and resources of your world.
This is not for the faint of heart or for those who need a more free-flowing writing process—but creating world timelines and histories is a great way of nailing down important events and understanding the development of cultures. I only begin creating timelines and histories after I’ve done a lot of research and worldbuilding (a.k.a. when my worldbuilding web is expansive and strong). Then I begin my listing all of the “big events” that I know already in the order that I know they occur. Usually, somewhere along in this process, I have to rearrange events to make more sense, which is one reason why I like to write it down. Then, connect the dots between these events—if there are large gaps in time or events that happen back to back but seem unrelated, find connections and tie everything together. Doing so will reveal gaps in your worldbuilding web as well as cause you to have to think logically about what you’re creating.
For histories, I like to focus on smaller chunks rather than attempting to write a whole book about my world (I’m not quite that crazy about worldbuilding). I pick influential families, the development of a country’s government, or what caused an important war and write overviews of the events that occurred. Think of it as writing a Wikipedia article for your topic. The ones I’ve written have ended up being anywhere from ~4-10 pages double spaced, so nothing too laborious. Knowing that you can explain the history of your world in a concise and complete way is one way of knowing that you have a good grip on your setting and will be ready to convey it to your readers through your prose.
- Story binders
I put this last on the list because, although it is a method I use to worldbuild, it also overlaps into other story development (character and plot) so it isn’t strictly a worldbuilding strategy. However, I love tangible organization, so creating story binders is my way of taking all the development I do and putting it into one place. You can make it as creative or plain as you want—take the maps you’ve drawn, lists you’ve made, histories you’ve written, and even pictures you’ve collected, slip them into clear protective covers, and keep them all in a binder of your choice. Keeping all your hard work in one place a) helps make sure you won’t misplace vital information and b) makes it easy for you to reference back to what you’ve created when you’re in the middle of writing and can’t remember if the coffee shop is to the left or right of the bookstore on Main Street, or if the characters will have to trek through mountains or a forest to get to the town where the treasure lies. Plus, it’s fun. It’s like scrapbooking without all of the stickers and glue, and far more practical.