Terraform writing – making the world for your characters

What in the world is going on?

I’ve been trying to get to the bottom of the biggest problem in the world. Namely, what IS the world? When writing a book from scratch, there are lots of questions that immediately spring to mind about its setting: What does the world look like? What is it like to live in the world? What happens when you walk down the street? Where can I buy some eggs? That sort of thing.

I decided early on (at least a week and a half ago!) that the whole story would be based on an island. I’m not thinking one man and his volleyball desert island story, more an island community living independently, away from the rest of the world. The idea behind this was to give the locals a hard boundary so that their history and development could be kept separate from our real history, while all the physical properties of the island would be familiar to other real places. Eg, the island will be based somewhere off the United Kingdom, so we can assume it’ll be formed in a similar manner to, say, the Isle of Man.

When I first started out on this project, I thought I should be drawing detailed maps of every inch of my new world, making comprehensive notes on every blade of grass, snail trail and pavement slab topped with canine excrement. It seemed to me as if there was no other alternative if I wanted a clear run of writing in my next phase of the project.

A minimalist world

But is this really the case? Does the whole world need to be described in such detail before we begin? I am now thinking differently – how important is this world to the plot? In my case, it’s still the Earth, it’s still set somewhere in the past 50 years, people will speak English. There’s really not a great deal to get wrong with it!

Ok, so there are some major things to think about around the locations where the action will take place. This is fine – I’ve already accounted for most of these in my notes (and a fair bit in my head!), but if the plot calls for a new location as I am writing, how much effort will it be to fit this new place in? In my world, not very much at all!

So the real question here is, what am I missing? Am I way off the mark with this? To me, the characters are the main entities in this story and they will fit into this world as I tell them to. The world will not adapt around them. I know there’s lots of writers creating wonderful worlds for their epic fantasies and I doff my hat to all of you – the work you put in to this is outstanding, I just think it’s outside the scope for the type of book I’m writing.

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