Tips on World Building


A diorama my son made in sixth grade.

I took a class taught by Aprilynne Pike on world building back in February at the ANWA conference. I was asked to give a lesson on world building for my writing group, and I thought I’d adapt  a few things I’ve come up with into a blog post.


First of all: a synonym to “world building” is “setting.” All books have a setting. It is, in fact, one of the most basic elements in a story.

I remember reading a piece by someone in my writing group, long ago, soon after I joined. It was just a short chapter, but it was brilliant. The only thing I recall at this point is a quirky little town parade and something about a stuffed goat on wheels. (That’s right. On wheels.) As we discussed her piece in the chapter meeting, the writer said something that has stuck with me, lo, these many years. She said, in effect, “What I am trying to do in this story is make the setting another character.”

I was fairly new to writing at this point, and that statement struck me as genius. I hadn’t ever heard that before—I hadn’t even considered it before. The setting as a character?! A whole galaxy of possibilities opened up.

So I feel like setting is the first level, but when you take it to the next level,  it puts you into world-building territory. (Although I did have a friend point out—you can change setting and still be in the same world. True.) And when you’ve built an amazing world to go along with your amazing story, that’s when your book will truly resonate and be memorable.

In Aprilynne Pike’s class, she talked about her Wings series and how she has pages and pages of information just about the land of faerie—most of it not in the book. She had a whole history of the land, along with a monetary/bartering system, maps, and rules that govern the way the magic works. Even though all that information wasn’t part of the story, she attested it gave her work a depth, a realness, that wouldn’t have been there otherwise.

She gave a couple of examples of other works during her class, where she read only small excerpts. Even though they were short, they still showed the type of world and set up how the setting became a character. Her first example was from Carrie Ryan’s The Forest of Hands and Teeth. Within the first few pages the world she has built is definitely a character in the story—a main character, from the looks of it.

Another example she used was from The Giver by Lois Lowry. When I think of dystopian lit, it seems there are two types of worlds: ones where everything is in the hands of a controlling government and things are very, very bad (like The Hunger Games or 1984) and ones where everything is in the hands of a controlling government and things seem all right at first (Matched or The Alliance). I think The Giver falls into the latter category.

Compared to a lot of other dystopian lit out there, The Giver starts out tamely. The world is a happy place and people are privileged to live there. And yet, there’s still this underlying wrongness about it. I started reading The Giver to my girls at the beginning of the summer, and when we got to the part where people were only allowed to raise two children (not their own), and the birth mothers were on the very bottom rung of society (after their “birthing years” were through, they were put in menial, hard labor jobs for the rest of their lives), my 9-year-old was completely horrified. So even though the language was “happy” and the people were “content” and the mother explains this to her daughter in a very matter-of-fact “this is the way it’s always been” way, Lois Lowry was able to strike these chords without really saying anything at all. There’s nothing overt in the book that says, “This is a crazy way to live.” She’s made the setting—the world—say that by simply being.

World-building does not come naturally to me. For this reason, I know I’m going to have to save an entire edit when my book is finished to simply go through and add in those details that add authenticity, the ring of truth, and that extra dimension of entering a whole new world. (Don’t you dare close your eyes!)

Key Points:

  • Make your setting another character in your story.
  • Use surprising details to pull the reader in—sight, smell, taste, touch, sound—and ensure the setting has a history as well as a future.
  • Let it affect the mood and tone of the story you’re telling.
  • Most of all: don’t forget to use it. Building a fascinating world where people want to go and see what goes on there is worth the extra time it will take you, as the writer, to weave into your book. Liz Adair has said, “I write cheap vacations.” So take your readers somewhere!


A Lady and a Spy by Ranee` S. Clark

A Lady and a spy blog tour image

Guess what? It’s time for my very first author interview on this website! I’m excited to welcome Ranee` S. Clark to my blog today, who has just released a charming historical novella, A Lady and a Spy.

Here’s a bit about it: Blanche Audley’s old-fashioned grandfather cut off her mother after she married Thomas Audley and his millions of “new money,” and for the last ten years since her parents’ deaths, Blanche has lived under the gloom of his disappointment. So when she recklessly loses a thousand dollars to Etta Channing in a game of baccarat, she will do anything to keep her foolish actions from him. Except he oversees every penny she spends of the wealth her father left her, leaving her no way of paying the debt without his knowledge.

Until Etta offers her a deal. Alexander Whealdon, one of the most eligible bachelors in town, needs a companion to shepherd his younger sister through her first season. Etta wants Blanche to take the position and use it to infiltrate the household and pass along information that will help Etta get her hooks into the reserved Mr. Whealdon. It seems like an easy way to pay off the debt and save face at the same time. But the more Blanche sees of Mr. Whealdon’s playful side, not to mention his surprising generosity, the less she wants to help Etta win him over.

Backing out means humiliating herself and disappointing both her grandfather and Mr. Whealdon, not to mention losing Miss Whealdon’s trust and friendship, but if she goes through with her promise to Etta, she will lose what might be her last chance for love.

I asked Ranee` a few questions about this book in particular and her writing process in general.

Wendy: Welcome, Ranee`! I’m so happy to have you here today. Okay. Here’s my first question: do you know how to play Baccarat?

Ranee`: Hahahaha. Not at all. I researched the basics, but when I did the research, I concentrated mostly on its believability as a part of the story; its believability as something Blanche would have played.

Wendy: What types of books did you read or films did you watch as research?

Ranee`: My biggest research help was “Seasons of Splendor” by Greg King. It’s a great, great book on the Gilded Age. The other books I concentrated on were manners and social books published in the time period and even cook books.

Wendy: Interesting! What made you decide to set your book in New York in 1894?

Ranee`: My last novella (“A Contemptible Affection”) was set in Regency England, which I love, but I also adore the fashion of the Gilded Age in New York. I read “The Luxe” series by Anna Godberson a few years ago, and although those books aren’t my favorite, it made me love the time period.

Wendy: Hm. I haven’t read that series, but maybe I will check it out. As a follow-up question: I read “A Contemptible Affection” and am writing a Regency myself right now. They are both such different eras, but there are also many similarities. What’s the same and what’s different about a Season in Regency England and a Season in New York just before the turn of the century?

Ranee`: So many of my differences came more in attitude differences between Americans and the British. The Americans at that time were more lax about chaperoning duties (which came up a lot in A LADY AND A SPY). At the same time though, the Victorian Era was a bit more uptight than the Regency Era. The middle class had begun to play a bigger role in society, and they had a more prudish outlook than the upper class–which had held all the power during the Regency era.

Wendy: Interesting. I don’t know much about the Gilded Age, but I *do* love Art Deco! Hahaha–is it too early for that?

Ranee`: Hmmm. I’m not sure. Blanche’s grandfather’s house is Rococo revival, if I remember right, which was popular in the mid-century. He’s sort of living in those glory days of the Knickerbockers, those old families that settled Manhattan.
For the Whealdon household, I was inspired by this blog post. So it was a mix of Renaissance and other things…just very opulent, which shows the excess of the upper class in New York during that time period.

Wendy: Ooh, cool. That house is amazing. Switching gears a bit now, how many kids do you have? How are you able to balance being a mother and being a writer?

Ranee`: It’s so hilarious that you should ask about being a mom! I’ve just been trying to bounce my youngest (7 months) on my knee while I typed, and finally had to hand him off.

Wendy: Typing one-handed definitely slows down the process . . .

Ranee`: Yes! Although I’ve gotten really good at it. I have three little boys–7 1/2 and 5 years, and 7 months.

Wendy: Lovely! Boys are so fun. I have two of them, myself.

Ranee`: Before the baby was born, I used to write almost exclusively at nap time. My middle one takes really great naps (still!) so I would have 3 or almost 4 hours of quiet writing time. Squishy, my 7-month-old, doesn’t allow that. Almost all my editing and writing for the last few months, especially the intense editing I’ve been doing on THE GAME PLAN in preparation for submitting it soon, has been done at night. My husband and I put them to bed around 7-7:30, then we hang out for a while and when he goes to bed at 9, I stay up and write/edit.

The change has been hard. I even had to give up a great editing job I loved, but I do what I can to develop my skill and get things done. This fall both my oldest will be in school, so hopefully I’ll get more day writing in.

My biggest help is my husband’s support. He’s always willing to take the kids and let me have time if I need it. He’s awesome.

Wendy: Hooray for supportive husbands! What’s the difference in writing when writing a novella vs. a novel?

Ranee`: Novellas are SO much easier to step back and see the whole picture. The planning is easier. The revising is easier. It’s easier to see where I’m on pace and what is sluggish.
Writing a novel is just more intense, lots more little things to think about, sub-plots, etc. Novellas are fun for me. Novels still are, to an extent, but novellas are like a stress reliever. So is researching for them. I love my historical novellas and the fun things I learn.

Wendy: Well, I’ve loved reading them both.

Ranee`: Thank you so much. That’s just the best thing to hear.

Wendy: Is there a tradition or custom that happened during your book’s time that you’d want to bring back today?

Ranee`: Dancing. Balls. I love to dance. I love to get dressed up and be pretty when I have the chance. I think that it would be awesome to attend a ball or two.

Wendy: I agree! Who can we petition to get that put back into society today? Okay, one last question. Do you keep a journal, and if so, how has it effected your writing?

Ranee`: I don’t keep a journal. (Gasp!) I actually do digital scrapbooking and that’s how I keep track of things going on in our family, so not a lot of journaling.

Wendy: Thanks so much for talking with me today, Ranee`!

Ranee`: Thank you for the opportunity to talk about my stuff. So fun!

Wendy: You’re welcome. It was delightful!

Ranee`: It was!

For a chance to win A Lady and a Spy (and who doesn’t love free books?) visit Ranee` at her blog here.

IMG_0001bRanee` and her personal superhero, her husband, live in Wyoming where they are raising three future super-villains. When she’s not breaking up impromptu UFC fights in her living room or losing to one of her sons at Uno, she loves to read and write. She has a bachelor’s degree in history that is probably useless, but she had a lot of fun earning it. She blogs about writing, reading, and editing at


Follow Ranee`:  Twitter * Blog * Amazon * Goodreads

Buy A Lady and a Spy: Amazon * Smashwords

Two Recommendations

I think I’ll key a new saying: “When the writing’s good, the blogging’s bad.”

So, if this blog is any indication, the past couple of weeks have been great writing-wise. (And that is correct.) However, I’ve struggled to get any of my started-and-abandoned blog posts to click.

I’m just going to give a couple of recommendations instead.

First, a movie:

I already raved about this on Facebook, but it is seriously one of the funniest and best-written rom coms I’ve seen in a long time. Beyond that, it’s set in Scotland [digression: I just found out my best friend is moving to Scotland, which is devastating because I’ll miss her so much, but also awesome because I can start saving for a trip where I’ll have a personal guide]. I’m a bit crazy about Scotland (and many other British-y things), so it was fun seeing all the gorgeous footage of the island of Hegg. Listening to Kelly MacDonald’s delicious accent and looking at David Tennant’s delicious face aren’t hardships, either. Let’s face it: you can’t go wrong with a cow-haunted toilet and lines like, “I’ll just leave it blank for eBay.” (Currently available on Netflix, where I just watched part of it [again] when I should have been packing for a Spring Break! trip with my kids.)

Second, a book:

On said Spring Break! trip, we had lots of miles to cover in our trusty Kia minivan. I picked up Fake Mustache, or How Jody O’Rodeo and her Wonder Horse (and Some Nerdy Kid) saved the U.S. Presidential Election from a Mad Genius Criminal Mastermind by Tom Angleberger (of Origami Yoda fame) from the library. It had my three older kids (ages 12, 10, and 9) and I laughing out loud more than once. One of the things I love best about middle grade fiction is its fantastical nature–the kids it’s aimed at are more than willing to suspend their disbelief and enjoy a completely unbelievable story. And as I have a soft spot in my heart for faux facial hair, this book is a clear winner.

What about you? Read or seen any winners lately? I’ve been making my way through the Whitney Awards finalists; there are definitely some winners there. When the writing gets bad, maybe I’ll write a review or two about some of them.

Cold River by Liz Adair

I don’t normally read romantic suspense. I’m more of a cozy-type gal. However, when I heard the premise for Cold River I was intrigued. Here’s what the back cover says:

Mandy Steenburg thinks her doctorate in education has prepared her to run any school district–until she tangles with the moonshine-making, coon-dog-owning denizens of a tiny district in Pacific Northwest timber country. She’s determined to make a difference, but the local populace still looks to the former superintendent for leadership. When Mandy lands in the middle of an old feud and someone keeps trying to kill her, instinct tells her to run. And though she has to literally swim through perilous waters, she finds a reason to stay and chance the odds.

Hmm. A lady superintendent? A small school district in the Pacific Northwest? I’m so there.

I bought the book and read for an hour one afternoon while my daughters were at piano lessons. When I got home, I couldn’t find the book anywhere. It was incredibly annoying. I looked in all the usual places, but it did not reveal itself. I read two other books over the next few days, but in the back of my mind I was gnashing my teeth. “What happens to Mandy? Does she fall in love with Vince? Does Grange get over his grudge?”

I found it that weekend (on the bookshelf, of all places!) and happily plowed through the rest of the book to reach the satisfying conclusion. And then I had to go back and read it slower so I could savor the good parts.

Adair has drawn a large cast of likable, quirky characters. She captured the feel of the Pacific Northwest perfectly (I should know–I live here. So does she!) and kept the mystery going right up until the end.

Cold River is a great read, with wonderful characters and several unique twists (steel drums, for one) in the plot. I enjoyed it very much.

Slayers by C.J. Hill

This amazing book comes out today! I was lucky enough to win an ARC (advance reader’s copy) on C.J. Hill’s blog last week, so I’ve already read it.

And loved pretty much every second of it.

Tori Hampton, the sixteen-year-old daughter of a senator, has to talk her parents into letting her go to St. George and the Dragon Camp. She’s wanted to go for years, but once she’s there, well, she’s not sure she really wants to stay. First of all, the camp is a little primitive. When the camp director sends her off with a couple of buff boys to the advanced camp–hidden in the trees two miles away, complete with its own stable, gun range, and mysterious large building–the only way she decides to stay is to prove herself to the other advanced campers who somehow have it in their minds that she’s pampered and unable to handle the rigors of advanced dragon camp.

Even after Tori finds out about the other campers’ special powers she still isn’t convinced she’s where she wants to be, and it goes double when they tell her that dragons really do exist and, oh, by the way, she’s got special DNA from her ancestors that makes her a dragon slayer.

Not exactly what she was looking for in a summer camp.

While dragon camp wasn’t exactly what Tori was looking for, this book is exactly what I was looking for.

It has all the things I look for in a great book: a strong voice, interesting characters, a little magic, and kissing. There were some unexpected twists in the plot that were believable and enjoyable, as well as some awesome fight/battle scenes. And a dragon, naturally. This is the first book in the series, so be ready for a conclusion that isn’t entirely conclusive, as well as a couple of major plot points/mysteries that carry on to the next book (which I am already anxiously awaiting).

This is a great YA fantasy pick. Simply thumbing through it to refresh myself with a few details to write this review made me want to start from the beginning and read it again.

The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy by Jeanne Birdsall

I picked up my copy of The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy (by Jeanne Birdsall) used, at Goodwill or a garage sale. It’s been sitting on my shelf for almost two years, waiting until the perfect moment to be read.

This weekend brought the perfect moment.

I was in the mountains with my extended family for a family reunion. We gathered at my grandparents’ cabin and renewed our bonds with each other by splitting into groups and re-making Johnny Lingo. In our downtime, we went boating and rode the jet skis. I enjoy going on the boat and jet skis occasionally, but it’s not my favorite thing. I was content to let everyone else have a turn and only headed out when one of my kids begged me to take them on a ride.

Instead, I would relax on the deck and visit with aunts, uncles, cousins, and/or their children. Or else I would read.

Thus arose the perfect moment to read about Rosalind, Skye, Jane, and Batty Penderwick. I loved them from the first page. Ms. Birdsall’s writing reminds me very much of Elizabeth Enright (Thimble Summer, Gone Away Lake) and Maud Hart Lovelace (The Betsy-Tacy books) and yet is still fresh and modern.

Even better, she has two other Penderwick books already written! I can’t wait to discover them.

This is definitely going on the ‘read-aloud’ list.

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

This isn’t a new book; on the contrary, it’s an old classic. I skipped class in high school to go and see the drama department’s matinee of Flowers for Algernon that they were putting on for the elementary school kids. (Why I couldn’t have paid the five bucks and seen it at night is still a mystery.)

My perspective now is surely different than it was then. Not only am I now an adult myself and better understand some of the nuances of adult relationships, I also have a child with a disability. While autism (which is what my son has) and mental retardation (which is what the hero of this book, Charlie Gordon, has) are two different animals, I still easily related some of the struggles between the two. The book, written in the late 50s, shows how society has changed in the way disabilities are looked at and also the way those who have disabilities are treated. Beyond that, though, is a great, tear-jerking story. It’s beautifully written, and one that, though I picked it off the library shelf on a whim, I will be culling Goodwill for to put on my own library shelf.