We had a very successful writers’ meeting this past Saturday and I’d like to share with you the exercise we did. The exercise was crafted to hone our ability to create fictional worlds in which to set our stories and, just as importantly, how to describe those worlds so as not to bore the reader to tears.
First, I’d like you to consider that there are two points of attacking the problem of world building: Top-Down and Bottom-Up. To put it very simply, you can build your world, decide on the geography, history, geology, cultures, religions, population, biology, technology, linguistics, etc and then write a story set in this world. Or, you can begin writing straight away and come up with the details of the world as you go.
I advocate for using both methods by turns. I largely let my mood determine which I am going to work on on any given day. Some days, I’m in a really good flow, the characters are coming alive right off the page, the plot is moving along smoothly, interesting things are happening. Some days, my writing is clunky and forced and I just don’t feel like it so, instead of abandoning my work for the day, I take care of other necessary tasks that come with producing a work of fiction. I do some research, I flesh out a character by filling out a character sheet, I seek out music that reminds me of a character or would be appropriate for a scene, or I work out some points about the setting by drawing maps, diagrams, writing lists, etc.
Here is an excellent post by Writing Questions Answered to help you determine when some world-building is in order and when you can safely proceed with putting pen to paper (or pixels to screen.)