Worldbuilding Lessons I’ve Learned from Each of My Published Works

Today I’m going to mix a post for readers with a post for writers and talk about worldbuilding lessons I’ve learned from the books I’ve published (whether I learned these lessons before or after I published a given book). So for those of you here for worldbuilding lessons, welcome. For those of you curious about what you might find in my published works, welcome to you, too. Let’s get started.

Short Story Collection Vol. 1: Solidify before you publish (& what you publish is semi-permanent)

We’re taking this list in release order, so Short Story Collection vol. 1 is up first. This is a lesson I learned from both the first and second editions: What you publish is semi-permanent. This means that if you’re publishing short stories, say, set in the same world as longer projects you’re either working on or have planned… you should be pretty confident in the world you’re putting on the page.

Escape Room and Silence have shaped some of my worldbuilding decisions for Lightning and the rest of my projects in the same world. Maintaining the fact that those with the superpower bug don’t have pulses, for example, (sort of a physiological headache at times, but you make it work when you have to) and working out the timeline of things like the first Genetic Deviance experiment and the formation of Elderwood-Montgomery Technologies with other events in the series.

In the second edition, I wrote Caithan while I was still working on Calligraphy Guild and published it before I’d learned some of the lessons I’ll share with that project. This led to some inconsistencies–especially as it relates to how those from Virilen culture come of age. This, too, I’ve managed to work with, chalking up the disparity to the fact that Caithan takes place in a culture of Virilens who have been taken from their homeland and are extremely deliberate about holding onto the distinctions between themselves and the culture around them.

The lesson here is somewhat two-fold. 1) You can work around–or through–published details that you might have written differently now. Even if a detail might not be your current first choice, there are ways to make it work with what you’re still building. But 2) it’s a lot simpler to look ahead before you publish, consider the consequences of what might seem like “throwaway” details, and make sure the pieces you’ve built fit with your overarching purpose for the world.

Lost Girl: The tone of your world matters… a lot

Confession: When I wrote Lost Girl, I hadn’t read Peter Pan. I had seen the 2003 movie and maybe the third season of Once Upon a Time and that was the extent of my experience with the story, which means I didn’t capture every detail perfectly. But I knew the general shape of the world and I understood the feelings that Neverland had come to evoke in readers and viewers.

The number of reviews on that book that say something to the effect of “The author clearly has a love for Neverland” makes me laugh. Especially when you’re emulating an established world, the details don’t have to be precisely accurate as long as the core elements remain (e.g. Peter Pan, Tinkerbell, Captain Hook, pixie dust, a reluctance to grow up, etc.) and the reader gets the same overall feeling and impression of the world.

I’m not saying you should therefore be careless or fail to do your research like I did; you should also learn from that little mistake and do your research ahead of time. But if you’ve done your research and now you’re worrying over all the little details… zoom out a little. If the key elements are where you need them and the tone is what it needs to be, relax. (Most) readers won’t question as much as you think they will.

(P.S. For anyone concerned: If I were to write a prequel or sequel to Lost Girl, it would have the proper background that it should; I, too, have learned the research lesson.)

The Mirror-Hunter Chronicles: Exploring as you go leads to places you might not expect

The Mirror-Hunter Chronicles started from a single seed of an idea (or bean, if you will), and from there I totally made it up as I went along. (Unfortunately, there are a couple of spots where you can still tell.) What this meant was that I got to explore the world as if I were just as new to it as anyone else (because I was) and learn things as Solem or other characters mentioned them. As a result, I was just as surprised and impressed as Solem when he reached the castle and found its architecture drastically different from anything he was accustomed to. I was right there with him when he learned of Kinley’s backstory–and Quin’s.

While these surprises may lead to some tricky editing later, they also reignite your wonder with writing and worldbuilding and they take you to places you might not expect. Ambrel is nothing like my other worlds–or even like I expected Ambrel to be when I started. But that means that I have so many unknown avenues I could explore if I ever returned to that world!

This is why I like writing vignettes for my more established worlds, as well; these allow me to get on the ground with my characters, explore elements that aren’t as familiar to me yet, and discover new details I hadn’t consciously intended. This can be especially great if you’re getting bored with your world or you otherwise want to prompt some new ideas.

P.S. I’m working on a new–much prettier–edition of The Mirror-Hunter Chronicles right now; the interior has been drastically re-formatted and the back cover has been reworked for a better look. If you want to hear when that edition launches–either to step into Ambrel for the first time in this new edition or just to add a prettier and more readable edition to your library–sign up below and be one of the first to hear about the relaunch!

Calligraphy Guild: If you dislike an element of your world, it might be out of sync

When I was writing Calligraphy Guild, I was only about a year into my journey of building worlds with cultural worldview in mind. I understood that worldview colors everything, but I hadn’t quite sorted out how that looks in certain corners of worldbuilding.

As I was writing, Sakura’s schedule and her attitude toward school–as well as Sinh’s–always felt wrong. I couldn’t pinpoint why, but I knew that Sakura wasn’t the kind of character who should hate school and I also knew that the school structure I had put in place was one Sakura would not enjoy.

Then it finally clicked. Sakura wasn’t the problem; the school structure was. I had shaped it after American public school by default (and, ironically, not even after my own personal experience). Not only did it not fit with Sakura and the character I was working with; it didn’t fit with the culture I had built. I had made a point to shape the entire Hairen society around community, family, and the arts… and I had failed to apply those same principles to their educational structure. (This inspired my post on “fantasy school… or not,” and I recommend checking that out for more on the topic.) Sakura was behaving like she belonged in the culture I’d built, and Hairen’s educational structure was decidedly not.

Now, hopefully it’s clear that the point here is not “never base your educational system off of American public schools” (though if you want to know whether or not that would be a good fit, check out the post above). The point is, if an element of your world–or even what appears to be a character issue–is rubbing you the wrong way, if you’re enjoying your world except that one point… take a look at that piece in relation to everything else. Compare it against the values you’ve established for the culture, or the foundational principles of your world as a whole. Make sure that you’re not, like I was, missing some crucial piece that would bring that element back into line with everything else.

Not sure how to know what’s out of line? I can help! Check out the Worldbuilders Guild and sign up below to get on the waitlist and be one of the first to join this spring!

Writers, which of these lessons was most helpful to you? What lessons have you learned from your own writing projects?

Readers, which of these stories interests you most? Did you enjoy the peek behind the scenes at the making of these books?

Comment below and let’s chat!

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