I had a request on my Superstars post to talk about the workshop I took from Kevin J. Anderson on world building.  I’d stayed away from fantasy for a long time because every time the topic came up, it was along the lines of “Get a three ring binder and some tabs” and then answer a ton of questions.  I didn’t even know what the story was until I wrote it.  How was I was supposed to come up with all of the answers?

I sort of pantsed my way into world building–some of of it kicking and screaming.  I read so much writing advice that dissed the building block of world building at it’s very basic level.  In fact, there was a post by a former NY editor that pretty much said description is a waste of time.

No description = no world.

And that applies even to a modern day mystery set in Los Angeles, not just a fantasy.

Just read Michael Connelly’s Bosch books. Seriously.  It is steeped in Los Angeles.  And it adds another level of enjoyment to the story.

Kevin learned how to do world building through gaming.  He was hired to write up the world for the games.  The person who hired him gave him a list of categories and told him to come up with information for the games.  He also noted that you might not need all the categories, depending on the story.

The first and most important category….


This is your basic setting the story and the character exist in.  I remember going to a con a few years back, and they said that every city has a reason for being where it is.

Like Alexandria, Virginia.  I went there on Saturday for the Farmer’s Market.  Alexandria is also called Old Town because it’s a historic city.  George Washington slept there–literally.  He actually had a townhouse.

The town sits on the Potomac River.  You wouldn’t know it from the photo below, but it was a major shipping port.

Potomac River

Now people anchor their pleasure boats at the docks and the river floods the lower half of the street at high tide.  But during the 1700s, it was place where merchants shipped a big Virginia product, tobacco.

Rivers draw merchants and ships, and by both those, towns.

Additionally, the Potomac is such a big river that there are tributaries all over the area…Doctor’s Run, Four Mile Run, Gulf Run, etc.  A place near me on Four Mile Run used to have a mill in George Washington’s time.  Not much to look at now, since the remains of the mill is a pile of rubble and there’s a road bridge over the top of it.

The terrain also consists of a lot of hills.  Water runs downhill to the rivers and tributaries.  Characters might have to walk up or down a hill.

A writer annoyed me because she set a story in a place I’d been to frequently Morro Bay, California.  There’s some distinct land features there, including a giant rock that you can see from a long ways off.

Morro Rock from the docks

Morro Rock (that’s the photo on my computer desktop)

The harbor is the most dangerous in the world.  It was also used by the Navy in World War II.  All the streets are on a mountainside and roll down toward the harbor.  My grandparents house was downhill in two different directions.

And did the writer mention any of this?  Heck, she didn’t even mention the town sat by the Pacific Ocean.  Which is why her books annoyed me.

So this category is thinking about what geographic elements the setting has.  Doesn’t necessarily have to be written down, or a list of questions.  But some ideas for the story can come right out of these details.

But in thinking this through, I’ll add a piece of this that a lot of writers tend to ignore: How character navigates through the geography. 

I’ve seen many fantasy books where the character gets on some variation of the King’s Highway and gets to where they’re going.  If a character doesn’t have a GPS, or even a map, they are going to have other ways to navigate.   I’ve been researching this for my fifth GALCOM book, Giant Robots.  Lots of interesting stuff.

Geography can provide a lot of different elements to a story.