This is the idea of going through the closest real-world analogue(s) to the world you are building and collecting as many cool images, quotes, events, anecdotes, sayings, and stories as you can find. Focus on details that make the people seem real, like the living, breathing individuals they once were. What makes real humans who lived a thousand years ago live again for you, in your imagination, can help bring your fictional characters to life too.
You might have heard of this idea by other terms, such as reference, or research. That’s exactly what it is, though it sounds much less exciting than a story harvest, right? Names are important, which is another topic for another day. For now, let’s talk about how you can be lazy and let the real world do some of the essential work for you.
We don’t build worlds in a vacuum. There are two reasons why this matters: it makes life a little easier for you, and it makes understanding your world a little easier for your audience.
Earth’s history is full of billions of people who have lived their stories, leaving all manner of intriguing details and tales from which we can draw inspiration. We might as well use them.
Almost all fictional worlds take most real-world things for granted. Magic aside, gravity makes things fall to the floor, water doesn’t flow uphill, and time travels in one direction. Physics aside, the humans in your world are likely to be happy when you give them precious gifts, and upset if you punch them in the nose, like real people. While they may have different cultures and live in a world with unfamiliar geography, the people in your world will probably behave in recognisable ways. This saves you loads of time.
Most fictional worlds use a real-world culture or two as their basis, whether this is made obvious or not. So, researching that history is a good place to start your own world-building. It could be as simple as a medieval European basis for a fantasy world, or the specific period of Japanese history I’m currently using.
I’m not suggesting that you should take everything wholesale without any spin of your own. Not at all. That wouldn’t be world-building; that would simply be writing history books. What I do instead is use the framework of a real, functioning, coherent world from history to paint in the broad strokes of the fictional world I want to build on top. That saves me a bunch of time, gives me a coherent foundation, and also offers me thousands of intriguing details that make my imaginary world seem more credible. This believable basis helps to ground the giant submarines, demons, and technomagi that I want to add on top.
For instance, let’s imagine that I’m writing a Victorian steampunk adventure. Why reinvent the way the London sewage system worked if it’s not a big part of your story? Why not leave the cab system as it was? Do you need to change it? Does it help add character to your world if you do? If not, if it only comes up in a passing comment, then why not just assume that these bits are the same, then if they ever come up you can use the real-world reference for them. You will absolutely need to consider how your wacky stuff interacts with and changes the way the basics work, if it does, but that’s much less work that detailing all of it from scratch. In this way, by using real-world references for some of your fictional world, you are left with more time to work on the innovative and characterful stuff.
One more thought: story harvests are a great shorthand to get you started. By assuming that, say, our sewage system is as it really was, we can call that done for now and move on to the next bit. However, if there was ever a reason to return to that question later, we can always add detail and change things up, as long as we can stay consistent with whatever we’ve already finalised. If you’re anything like me, you’re likely to want to change at least some of the early pieces when you get to the later elements, and see how some of the ramifications of your latest cool idea impact where you started. That’s why you write several drafts…
The other thing that’s good about using real-world reference is that it helps your audience to navigate round the new stuff more easily. If everything is unfamiliar, then they are going to really struggle. The knack is to change just enough to make your work feel fresh and engaging, without changing so much that your reader hasn’t got a clue where to start.
As I’ve said before, people ask for the new and buy the familiar. So, you must give them something that they will find recognisable for them to start with.
That leads on to period character. Chances are that yours is not the first example of a fantasy world, steampunk environment, or whatever you’re working on that your audience has encountered. They will have expectations. You need to either meet these or usurp them cleverly. Twisting things is by far the more dangerous route, but the most rewarding if you can pull it off. Just remember that you can’t do it all the time or they will lose their footing.
For my fantasy Japan, I’ve been reading all sorts of things, though I seem to have gone down an intriguing rabbit hole of literary forms at the moment. Understanding how they wrote, and the topics they focussed on, tells me something about the culture as well as including all manner of potentially helpful period detail. It also gives me a framework for any written work I want to add to my version or provide as a background. Is this level of detail necessary? You’ll have to decide for yourself. Personally, I enjoy finding out, and I also enjoy knowing that my world makes sense, even if how it does so is never explained to my audience. As the creator’s enjoyment of the process often comes through in the form of a better creation, I take this as a good sign that I will end up with a result that I am happy with. Well, as happy as a creative ever is with their own work!