I love world-building. Of all the things that will suck me into a book and force me to buy all of the author’s works, the world is one of them. Our world is full of detail and amazing locations and wondrous sights. It’s only fair that the worlds of fiction—whether set in the real world or a fantasy one—be just as detailed.
I have a private blog, sadly neglected as it is, devoted entirely to images. Photographs of faraway cities, elaborate costumes, artist’s renderings of worlds both real and imagined grace its pages. Some of you may have something similar. A Pintrest account maybe. Or a simple file folder devoted to anything that inspires you.
I find having a resource like this to be immensely useful. For all our imagination, we writers sometimes fall short on how to describe something. We know the villain lives in an imposing citadel, but what kind of imposing citadel? Are there spikes and polished black stone, or living gargoyles and slick grey walls? Say your character has to go to Turkey to discover the next big clue. But you’ve never been to a Turkish market before, and certainly can’t afford to travel! Luckily, many before you have and they took a lot of pictures.
I find having an image in front of me helps determine my word choice. Even if I’m only basing my setting off of an image, it’s a sturdy canvas that I can add my own flourishes to. Yes, it’s a picture of a hidden beach inside the cavern, but it’s not the only thing I’m seeing. I’m also seeing the sirens lying in wait, or the smugglers who stash their goods in holes hidden by runic magic carved into the stone.
References help because they force you to think about how you would describe the scene to give someone the best impression possible. Without a good reference point, a writer risks falling back on vague phrasing or descriptors they’ve read a hundred times before, which may or may not reflect the place they’re trying to represent. Vague or overused descriptions don’t add to world building, they take from it.
But an image can’t be the entirety of the description. To help build a world, the writer must engage the reader’s other senses as well. Your research will help there. Knowing what’s being sold in the market will help you determine the smells. Knowing how the market environment is will help you better write interactions between characters (with some of your researched wildlife as background music). Talk to people who have been to these countries influencing your fiction, whether they were just visiting or lived there for a time. Even if your city or country is fictional, talking to someone from the area you’re basing your writing on will help you better understand the atmosphere and culture, and therefore help you better write it.
Know specific smells or noteworthy sounds. “Spices” doesn’t tell me much about your world in the way that “cinnamon and cardamom in round glass jars” does. “Bird calls” don’t give the same imagined resonance as “the shriek of long-necked buzzards.”
Whether your story takes places in the far future, the distant past, today, or in worlds that do not exist, A little thought, solid research, and some inspirational artwork can bring your prose a long way.