Roaming at the intersection of fiction and reality
Creating Your World
I love worldbuilding -- both in science fiction and fantasy. For me, that’s part of the kick in doing speculative fiction, a part of the process I greatly enjoy. When the worldbuilding’s done well, the reader will forget that this is a created world and begin to experience this fictional landscape as something as solid and substantial as the world we see around us every day. For me, Frank Herbert’s Dune (for science fiction) and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (for fantasy) were two of my earliest memories of that type of feeling, the sense that somehow I’d fallen into a universe that was whole and complete.
What I intend with this article is to give newer writers my version of some of the mindset and tools necessary to create worlds that will feel real to your readers. I make no claim to having all the answers, or even any answers at all. For me, too, the act of worldbuilding is necessarily a work-in-progress, one that changes somewhat with each new project. Here’s what I learned from writing nineteen novels and lots of short stories. Take from it what you want or can.
Worldbuilding, An Introduction…
At the outset, I think we can safely say that worldbuilding is a critical skill for fantasy and sf, but not for any other genre. That’s not without a few caveats, of course: to some extent, a historical novel or any novel that’s set someplace other than the here-and-now where the writer resides requires additional background that the writer must create, but in all the other genres, it still our world forms the backdrop for the fiction.
Of course, all fiction of any type shares certain basic components. A story or a novel will have a theme: something that the author is trying to communicate. When you say “This story is about…” you’re often describing the theme. A fictional story will have characters who inhabit this fictional world, and because those characters do things -- both with the world and with each other -- there is a plot. In some fiction, the plot may seem to dominate, while in literary fiction, that plot may be nearly invisible, but it’s still there.
And the world in which these characters live is the setting.
What we’re talking about in this article is primarily the last if those four components -- because worldbuilding is an aspect of Setting. I’d hasten to add that you can’t truly deal with any of these components in isolation: change something in the setting, and -- like tossing a rock into a pond -- you set up ripple effect that will alter your characters and your plot and your theme as well.
Now, in “normal” fiction, I can have a character walk over to the light switch, flip it, and the reader will understand why the lights went off in the room. I don’t have to explain anything. I don’t have to describe the light switch unless it’s 1) not a normal light switch, and 2) the fact that’s it’s unusual important to the plot. I don’t have to explain why the lights went off, or how light switches work, or why my character happens to be familiar with them. This is because we’re in our familiar world. We all share that experience and knowledge with our fictional characters.
This extends far beyond light switches: to customs (like shaking hands when we meet or saying “Gesundheit” when someone sneezes), to social structure (we know what a Mayor is, or a Senator), to technology (we’re not surprised that someone is talking to the air while holding a piece of plastic up to the side of their face while walking around the bookstore).
Even in science fiction, where the story might take place on another world set two hundred years in the future… well, the ancestors of those fictional characters still came from our world and our society, and the only history the author needs to explain is what happened between our Now and the fictional Then. The worldbuilding in the usual science fiction novel is, frankly, a little easier because of that: the framework of the world is already up. As writers, we just have to fill in what happened after today. A fantasy world, though, often has nothing in common with our world: no shared history, no shared society, nothing. And -- as with cooking -- fiction is best when created from ‘scratch’ without using pre-mixed and pre-measured servings.
But… remember this: worlds are complicated things…
Look at the components of our world. We have Flora: and how many plants can you name that are living just in your yard? Or in your city? Extend that to the entire Midwest, the continental United States, the Northern Hemisphere, the entire Western world, the oceans, the poles, the entire world with all its continents.
We have Fauna: as with Flora, how many critters are in your house, your yard, this city, etc. Just looking at my own house, we have four humans, a cat, a dog, and (I’m quite certain) a few mice in the walls and assorted spiders, dust mites and other creepy-crawlies lurking in shadowy corners. While walking out in the yard I’m likely to see squirrels, chipmunks, birds, possums, raccoons, rabbits, deer, a wide assortment of various insects (not mention hordes of cicadas in certain years). And that’s just my own suburban area.
Geography: worlds aren’t simple geographically, either. How many types of climates are there? Deserts? Plains? Mountains? And where you put them matters -- a mountain range that’s high enough will affect the weather greatly on either side. A mountains range that runs down a continent like a spine will create a Continental Divide, and the rivers will run one direction on one side and another on the other.
Cultures and societies: How many different societies do we have just on this world, all very different from each other? How many religions? How many uneasy co-existences because of these differences?
Technology: Even in our world, technology levels can vary greatly. A hundred years back, two hundred, or three hundred years ago, we had vast differences between the technological levels in, say, England and New Guinea. As for magic -- there’s an old saying of Arthur C. Clarke’s: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from Magic.” Magic, I would contend, is just another form of technology or science, and as such, operates in by logical rules of its own -- otherwise magic is simply a deus ex machina plot device which will greatly annoy your readers (and the editors to whom you’re trying to sell your story.) So if you’re writing fantasy, the magic you create in your fantasy world will (and must) have its own consistent systematic rules -- which you must put together and codify, both for yourself and for your readers.
History: worlds have history, and history matters. Much of the way we react and think and respond to things in our world are because of the history we have. Anybody reading this Irish? -- tell the Irish that history doesn’t matter… Anybody reading this Jewish -- tell a Jewish person that history doesn’t matter… Anybody reading this African-American? -- tell an African-American person that history doesn’t matter. And so on down the line. Your characters will have their own histories -- and that history will be important to them… and thus to your readers.
And here’s the rub: all these must be created first, before you start writing.
What? I have to build the world now?
Well, not entirely perhaps. You can write an opening scene (or two) without having built the world. I’ve done that myself. If you have a vivid scene in your head for your new fantasy novel, yes, write it down immediately. Get it on paper before it goes away. Hey, the scene may even stay relatively unchanged after you the novel… but my bet is that it won’t.
Without having done the required worldbuilding, you won’t be able to write much more than the first scene and maybe a few afterward. Not until you know your world -- because otherwise you’re just moving characters on a blank, empty stage where they don’t know their lines or have any idea of what they’re supposed to say next. The longer the work, the more in-depth that worldbuilding has to be. A short story can get away with a minimal stage-setting because it has a tight focus. A novel, though…
But I will guarantee this: As you build your world, you will come up with all sorts of new ideas and twists for your characters and your plot.
A few warnings, though, before we move on to the actual process of worldbuilding. It’s easy to get caught up in worldbuilding. I love worldbuilding. I enjoy researching things and creating this entire backdrop and painting it all and making it look and feel real to the reader out there in the audience. But at some point, you have to start writing the actual story. You might find that it’s tempting to endlessly research the stylistic pottery decorations of the desert nomads just in case it might, one day, maybe, become important to the plot. You know that when your spouse comes in and catches you with your feet up on the desk and book about sailing ships in your lap, you can say with a somewhat aggrieved look on your face “Honest, Darling, I am working on the novel. This is research.”
Research won’t ever finish your book or your story. Only your butt in the chair and fingers on the keyboard will do that.
Now, there’s good news and there’s bad news with worldbuilding. The Good News is that no one can tell you you’re doing it wrong -- well, at least not until you send it out and your editor rejects the story because the world’s not believable. The Good News is that in fantasy or science fictional worldbuilding you don’t have to look for a historical period or just the right society for the story you want to tell -- you get to set all that up exactly the way you need it to be for your theme. You’re not constrained to our history, culture, and landscapes. The Good News is that the only limit is your imagination and the needs of your story.
The Bad News is that, as I said above, worlds are complicated mechanisms, and your world needs to appear to be just as complex as ours if your readers are to believe in it. The Bad News is that within that complexity, everything still has to have logic and order, just as it does here. The Bad News is that when you’ve put that all together, you’ll have a ton of material that you’ll need to convey, and the hard part is getting it to the reader without stopping the story dead in its tracks. There are a couple terms for this that get used in workshops: “infodumps” and “As you know, Bobs…” An “infodump” is when you put up a big “STOP!” sign in the middle of the plot and then you-the-author pause to explain things that the reader should know, usually in one huge, indigestible segment of expository prose that reads like a history book or a technical manual. An “As You Know, Bob” is when you coerce two characters into telling us other things that they both know in an effort to get the information to the reader. To use our light switch example from above, imagine reading this sequence in a mainstream novel: Cheryl flipped the switch, flooding the room with light. “Wow, what just happened, Cheryl?” Bob asked. “Well, as you know, Bob, when I flip this plastic switch on the wall to the Up position, it completes a circuit in the wiring, which sends current to the lights in the ceiling….”
Doesn’t work, does it? The dialogue sounds stupid and false -- because it is. But it’s tempting for the writer to do this in speculative fiction. Don’t.
The Rules of Worldbuilding.
First, a short anecdote. In my undergraduate days, I was a "Fine Artist." I studied painting and drawing, sculpture and Art History. I even imagined myself as Very Good, though in reality I was Very Mediocre. I had, however, the wonderful opportunity to study with an excellent teacher, a painter named Robert Fabe. One day, Fabe walked into the studio where we were painting and looked around at all the canvases. Without exception, we were all doing abstract work with bold colors and broad strokes. He grunted and left the studio, returning a few minutes later with a book. He called us around and showed us several paintings -- realistic work with attention to the proper proportions of the body. "Do you know who did these?" he asked us. We shook our heads. "It's early Picasso," he told us. "The stuff you never see. Look at these sketches--that hand there could have been done by Michelangelo or Da Vinci or Raphael or Dürer. Picasso was an illustrator first. He knew how to draw or paint what was in front of him."
Fabe set the book down and looked around the room again. "So when I look at Picasso's later work," he continued, "I know that he drew both eyes on the side of a head because he wanted the painting to look that way. If a face was blue, it was because he wanted it to be blue. If the body was stretched and deformed and wrong, that was deliberate." He tapped the book. "Picasso had the skill and mastery and knowledge to paint any way he wanted to paint. He started painting abstracts because he chose to paint that way. He broke the rules knowing what the rules were in the first place. I look at your stuff here and I wonder: are you painting this way because that's the way you want to paint, or are you painting that way because you don't know how to paint any other way?"
We grumbled and argued, but afterward -- when I could think about the comment with some distance and less heat -- I realized that Fabe was largely right. Most of us couldn't have painted a realistic landscape or a convincingly realistic figure. To a large extent, we were painting the only way we could paint.
If we were breaking any rules, it was because we didn't know them in the first place. If our artwork was good, it was largely accidental and probably not reproducible.
I've also made a living as a musician, and I found this same trait in self-taught musicians of my acquaintance. Mind you, I do believe you can become an excellent musician, visual artist, or writer without formal training, a teacher or a mentor -- if you have the disciple, the determination and the perseverance to undertake a study of your discipline and the techniques and processes of those who have mastered it. But that's often easier to do via lessons and classes and the help of someone who knows the craft. Several of the self-taught musicians I've known had natural talent and were very good, but they were also limited because they've never learned the 'correct' way to play. If you don't know the 'rules' of fingering, your facility and speed are compromised. If you don't know the 'rules' of reading music, you're limited to playing by ear. If you don't know the 'rules' of other kinds of music than the type you're playing, you're limited to one style. I wonder just how fantastic those musicians with tremendous natural talent would have been if they'd actually studied music...
If they'd first learned the rules.
I've been teaching fiction writing at the college level for several semesters now, and I'm feeling a bit like Robert Fabe when I read the student work I'm getting. A few of the stories have been excellent because the writers have a great deal of natural talent. They have an "ear" for writing. The vast majority of the fiction, though, is somewhere on the scale from "OK" to "Dreadful." Most of the fiction breaks the rules... and as a result, fail as a story.
The students are writing the way they write largely because it's the only way they can write.
Here are the Three Rules about Rules: ONE: EVERY WRITER WILL GIVE YOU A DIFFERENT SET OF RULES. That’s because there isn’t a right way to write. If you’re persistent and successful, you eventually come up with a process that works for you, that gives you a satisfactory result nearly every time. It works for you… but there’s no guarantee that it will work for anyone else. It might, but it also might not. So when one writer gives you a piece of advice, and then you ask the same question of another writer and get something that’s a discrepancy or an outright contradiction to the previous advice, don’t worry. In fact, expect it. There’s an old Zen proverb: “There are many paths to the top of the mountain.” What rules are intended to do is to help you find the easiest path and miss some of the pitfalls that those of us who blazed the path have fallen into
TWO: IF YOU FOLLOW THE RULES, YOU’RE FAR LESS LIKELY TO FAIL. The rules are there for one reason: following them results in consistent success for a writer. Think of the rules for Proper Manuscript Form -- if you don’t follow proper manuscript form, your chances of getting published go way down. Same with the rules for worldbuilding. There’s also no guarantee of success if you follow the rules; only the expectation that your chances are much better than someone who doesn’t know the rules.
THREE: IF YOU FOLLOW THE RULES BLINDLY FOREVER, YOU’RE LESS LIKELY TO MAKE SOMETHING UNIQUE. That’s just as it was with Picasso -- at some point, if you want to create something unique, you’ll want and need to bend or break the rules. And that’s fine.
And so saying, let’s get to those rules, as I see them….
Rule One: “There Has To Be A Reason”
“The rain was so hot that it burned the flesh of those it touched.” OK, that’s potentially an interesting hook to an unusual world -- but “there has to be a reason” for that. Nothing exists in a vacuum, nothing in your imagines world should happen “just because.” The rain can’t be scalding hot for no reason at all. Think of it this way: people makes purposeful choice -- we don’t build cities unless there’s a good reason to do so. We don’t make laws without a reason (though not necessarily a good one!) As with us the same with nature. Nature isn’t random either. It can’t be 90 degrees one day and 0 degrees the next, not unless you have a good explanation for that. You can’t have large herds of animals on the plains without some kind of prey animal that feeds on them, or without the right kind of plants to sustain the herds -- it just doesn’t happen.
And if we’re talking a fantasy world, well, guess what? Magic isn’t random either. The magic in your world also has to operate in a ‘logical’ manner: you must create “Rules for Magic” in your world -- how does it operate? Why does it work? How does it fail? Who can make it work? What do they need to use to make it work? What does it arise from? And so on…
Children know the right question to ask. Ever had a young child play this annoying trick, responding to everything you say with the question “Why?”
Go on, admit it: you’ve done this yourself. But for worldbuilding, it’s a great question. With every decision you make in creating your world, there should be a little voice in your head that goes “But why…?”
Rule Two: “Everything Connects”
Remember the old story about “for the want of a nail”? No nail, no horseshoe; no horseshoe, no horse; no horse; no solider riding it; no soldier riding, no enemy killed; no enemy killed, the battle lost; the battle lost, the city taken; the city taken, the war lost -- so for the want of a nail, the war was lost.
Same here. All the components of a world not only should, but must interconnect. If you have a plain with lots of vegetation, you’ll have herd animals; if you have herd animals, you’ll have prey animals -- which could include nomadic humans following them.
Not only that, but as you tinker with the setting, you’re also necessarily tinkering with the characters, the plot, and the theme, because none of those can exist independently of the other.
Look at yourself as an example of interconnection. You have parents. You have a relationship with your parents of some description. You may have children, and you have a relationship with them. You have a boss at your job, and co-workers. You have a cultural background that will be different from the person sitting next to you based on all sorts of factors: race, gender, age, wealth, country of birth, schooling, area of the country you grew up in, your health or accidents you may have suffered. You’re a living being, so you must eat -- which means someone somewhere has to grow, catch, raise, prepare, package, transport the food you eat. You breathe the air that’s affected by the technology around you, you buy products someone else made, you live in a house someone else built, you share cultural knowledge that was taught to you and thousands of other kids just like you in school, you watch the same television show that ten million other people saw at the same time, you get the same spam e-mail that was sent to thousands of other people… You are caught up in the web of this world. You can’t escape that. Neither can the characters in your fiction -- there is a web of connection there, too… and you must create it.
Rule Three: “Worlds Are Complex”
Our web of interconnection isn’t simple, either. A world is not a uniform place where everything is the same. Diversity is the key word. Look at our world as an example. How many thousands of languages have their been (2,796 spoken languages, as a matter of fact, according to the Internet Public Library). How many nations of all sizes and types are there currently, and how many thousands more throughout history?
We have temperate forests and pine woods; we have gentle foothills, we have harsh mountains; we have rivers that meander and rivers that foam white through canyons; we have seashores and lakeshores; we have alkaline deserts, sand deserts, high deserts, frozen deserts; we have plains of grass and plains of scrub brush; we have incredible heat and just as incredible cold; we have glaciers and hot springs; we have gentle spring rains and thunderstorm and tornadoes and hurricanes…
There is are very few possible social structures that humans haven’t tried: matriarchies, patriarchies, dictatorships, democracies, republics, communism, monarchies. We have societies were cannibalism is the norm, where shamans rule, where a person would commit suicide because they’re told to do so. We’ve tried all sorts of sexual variations, all sorts of religions.
Look around you -- all dogs are not alike; all cats are not alike, all humans are not alike. No category of anything is all alike -- so even within like categories there is diversity. In fact, it’s difficult to come up with a new life-form so bizarre that there isn’t some counterpart in our own nature or mythology.
The more diverse you make your world, the more real it will be. In fact, a fantasy world must be even more diverse, since you’re adding a new system to it.
Rule Four: “Simple Is Better”
Yes, this seems contradictory to Rule Three. Which is fine.
You see, believe it or not, readers have imagination too. You probably have in your head all this excruciating detail for every piece of your imaginary world. In fact, you should have all that excruciating detail in your head, as Rule Three indicates. But…
Have you ever read a book and had this definite and precise picture in your head of what the main character looked like? Go back and look at the description of the character -- I’ll bet you’ll find that the author didn’t give you most of those specific details. The author gave you the important details and left the rest to you… and your imagination. The readers’ imagination and the author’s worldbuilding are a partnership, a symbiotic relationship.
Think of the novels or stories you’ve read that have been turned into a screenplay. You’ve seen movies where you go “Wow, they got that right!” and movies where you’ve said the opposite. (Peter Jackson’s LOTR got it mostly right, in my opinion…) Once the author has given you the vital points that must be there for the story to be understood, you’ll provide the rest and play out the cinema of the story in your mind. So remember that when you’re the author: there’s no need to go into nitpicking details of dress, coiffure and accouterments… unless they need to be there, of course.
Rule Five: “What you leave out is more important than what you put in.”
This rule is a further extension of the previous one. Just because you’ve put together this stunning, detailed and interconnected web of a world doesn’t mean that you should toss all that into the book. You put in only what is necessary for the reader to understand the characters, the plot, the setting, and theme. Anything else, leave out. Yes, you did a ton of work putting together those stylistic pottery decorations of the desert nomads, but unless those pottery decorations are critical to the plot, now you must leave them out.
You should always know more about your world than the reader, but just because your created something and wrote it down doesn’t mean that it needs to be there. If you’ve ever done serious remodeling of a house, you know that there are some walls you can knock down, and others -- the supporting walls and braces -- that you absolutely cannot take out without endangering yourself and your house. Same with your story: you have to learn what are the essential details that must be in your story, and you must leave them in place. But everything else is just decoration -- and as with most tasteful decorating, the ‘white space’ of your decor what make everything stand out.
Generally, the less Victorian gingerbread you put around the story’s stage, the better.
Rule Six: “Names Do Matter”
In a fantasy world, your characters very likely don’t speak English. Rather, they speak whatever languages are native to this place you’ve created for them. They will have their own terminology, their own sayings, their own names for plants and animals, and so on…
Of course, assuming you’re a North American or Irish or British writer, you do speak English (hopefully) and so does your core readership (unless and until you sell foreign rights). So you’re going to have to write the book in English.
Part of the reason we read the genre is for that sense of wonder and strangeness -- we like to travel to foreign and unknown lands of the imagination, and we want the readers of our stories to feel that wonder as well. One way to achieve a feeling of ‘foreignness’ in your fantasy novel is to give a taste of the language of the people in your story. For example, in my Cloudmages series, the world is largely based on Celtic history -- a false history, but the world is still recognizably Celtic in origin. To suggest the cadence and sound of their language, I sprinkled in Irish Gaelic throughout the book to give a Celtic ‘flavor’ to the text. The character names are also ancient Irish/Scottish variations on names. You can also create your own language -- but if you do, you can’t simply assign random syllables to terms, expressions, and names. Listen to someone speaking a foreign language; there’s a rhythm and sound to a language that’s consistent, and you must be consistent in the same way.
Another warning’s necessary as well: watch how much “sprinkling” you do. You have to put in enough to give the flavor of the culture, but not so much that your readers are constantly running to an appendix to look up terms. As much as you can, use both English and your world’s language, or make sure the reader can understand the term in context. Overusing a foreign or created language can overwhelm, befuddle, and confuse the reader, not to mention the fact that it can slow the flow of the story to a crawl.
What’s the right amount? I can’t tell you -- like any cook, you need to flavor to both your and your audience’s taste.
Rule Seven: “It’s the Characters, Stupid”
No matter what you think of Bill Clinton and his political views, he was arguably one of the best campaigners of recent history. Supposedly, in the middle of his first presidential campaign, he kept a sign on his desk to remind himself what was of bottom line importance to the voters: “It’s the Economy, Stupid.”
For a writer, there’s a similar bottom line for your readers: “It’s the Characters, Stupid.” A story is first and foremost always about characters. We’re human. We’re voyeurs. We love hearing about people -- that’s why we gossip. We are endlessly fascinated with ourselves. People remember books not for the descriptions, but for the characters. They fall in love with them, they hate them -- but they remember them. Don’t lost sight of your characters in your worldbuilding. Nothing is more important.
This means that the more a part of this world you make your characters, the deeper you can layer them into this interconnected web, the more real they will seem and the more effective your prose will be. Without characters, all you have is a landscape. Henry James said “What is Plot but Character?” A plot is what characters do in a particular setting. Worldbuilding is an important aspect of science fiction and fantasy writing, yes, but it’s your world that interesting to the reader, it’s the interaction of characters with your world.
Tidbits To Try…
The above are the “Rules,” as I see them: the essentials of creating a believable world. I offer the following only as strategies that I tend to use myself -- not essentials, but a few of the ways I try utilize the rules I’ve laid out.
Maps are always good!
I love maps. I’ve been known to buy books of maps just because I like looking at them. When I first read Lord of the Rings, ages and ages ago, I pored over the maps in the books, referring back to them often, and sometimes traveled in my mind to places shown there that never were in the books at all. Those were great maps -- they made that world far more concrete in my imagination.
Perhaps as a result, one thing I’ve done for all my books is to draw a map (or two or three or ten), even though most of the time such maps don’t ever show up in the final book. (Though my maps ARE in the CLOUDMAGES series of books….) A map allows me to visualize the landscape my characters inhabit. They sometime even suggest plot points that I might not otherwise have realized.
For instance, in drawing one of the maps of the north of Inishfeirm for Mage of Clouds, I could see the route that a sailing ship would have to take in this world… and also knew the place where such a ship could best be ambushed and sunk -- which became a scene in the book. Because of the map, I also knew where my protagonist had to be rescued, and who she would be rescued by, and how she might think about getting home and what some issues in that plan of action would be…
Yes, maps are often a staple of High Fantasy, though far less so with science fiction. No, the author doesn’t always (or even usually) do them -- often someone else, in collaboration with the author, will create them. If you like maps and if they help you visualize your world, draw one. Your maps don’t have to be perfect or pretty. In fact, no one ever has to see them but you. They can be scribbles on notepaper. All they must do is let you imagine your world more clearly.
Draw what you see in your head…
My Bachelor’s Degree was in Fine Art, so yes, I enjoy drawing -- and I do tend to draw some of the characters in my novels. For my novel Dark Water’s Embrace, I drew an alien hand and face -- and no, they never showed up in the actual published book. They were, however, on my wall (and still are) and whenever I needed to describe that race, all I had to do was glance over there to see my sketch. If nothing else, it meant that my description was consistent throughout the book.
As with maps, your sketches or drawings don’t have to be professional -- frankly, neither are mine. All they have to do is spark a corresponding picture in your head. Have you ever had to remember something, and so you wrote down one key word that would allow you to recall all the rest? It’s the same thing here. If you have an image in your mind, just a little doodle might help you recall it later, even if it looks nothing like the vision in your head.
I’ve written copious amounts of non-fiction for my books. I’ve written:
pieces of fake history for my world, or
creation myths or religious beliefs that my fictional people held…
or for important characters an outline of their whole life prior to the book…
or a treatise on the ‘physics’ of magic in your world so that you’re always consistent with it.
When I do that, I generally DON’T do it in “fictional” form, but more in “textbook” form, as if it were a piece of research I picked up at the library. Doing that often helps me to think of how everything connects together in this world, how events not only go out physically, but how they reverberate through time as well. For instance, for the CLOUDMAGES series, I wrote three separate creation myths: one for the humans, and two others for different races -- and in doing so, I realized just how they’d view their current world differently from each other, and thus react to the same events in their own unique ways.
Mind you, these generally don’t go into the text of your story. They’re for you, not the reader -- though hey, maybe you can toss them into an appendix, if you’re so inclined.
Steal from our history
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with borrowing from our world’s history -- every writer I know does so frequently, sometimes overtly, sometimes in more subtle ways. There is so much strange and wonderful stuff in ‘true’ history that can be mined. Now, If you do use material from history, do the research -- because someone will call you on it if you get it wrong… and if you really get it wrong, you’ll never find a market to publish your story or novel. You’d be surprised how many people -- among them the editors and other writers -- know about, oh, say the Roman Empire. Because the Roman Empire is so well-known to everyone, and there’s so much material on it, you must research deep and wide to avoid the pitfalls if you do a Romanesque fantasy. In my opinion, you’d be better off finding something more obscure…
If you use the history literally, you’re writing a historical, not a fantasy, and that’s a different beast. For a historical, you don’t have to create your own world -- you just use a historical period within our world and try to get the details right. That’s not saying there isn’t a lot of work to that -- there is, if you do it well -- but it’s not the same as worldbuilding in the sense we’re using it here. For fantasy worldbuilding, you’re only going to borrow certain elements from history. You’re not going to use our world, or a period within it, or true historical events or people. You’re going to go for the flavor of the time, not the reality.
Do a genealogy, if it matters…
I have to admit that I’m often leery of genealogical charts in a fantasy. But, especially in fantasy, or in a world where bloodlines are of critical importance to society, it may well matter. I’d never done it before myself, but I’ll admit that I actually used a genealogical program for the worldbuilding in the Cloudmages series because the familial lines are important to the characters, thus so is the genealogical background of the characters. Doing so also helped keep me straight as to who was related to whom, and how. I did a fairly extensive genealogy for these books, with lots of character whose family trees tie into each other… but no, those genealogical charts are not in the books. They were for me (and the characters), not the reader.
Don’t throw anything away…
I’ll make the admission: I’ve had appendices in most of my recent books -- which are largely the notes I put together in the beginning as I was creating the world, along with other peripheral material that didn’t need to be in the book -- again, stuff that doesn’t have to be there shouldn’t be there.
To go back to LOTR again, when I read the books, I was fascinated by the appendices, which revealed deeper layers of this fantastic universe Tolkien had created: a history that seemed as long and detailed as our own, each race with their own tales, and the languages… I enjoyed reading them as an adjunct to the actual story (though the Silmarillion, which came out several years later and which was essentially a Big Book of Appendices without a story, didn’t thrill me anywhere near as much.) Like me, many readers (especially) of fantasy enjoy the additional material.
Anything you have used to create for your world is fodder for the appendices -- in fact, I usually have to not only clean up the notes, but also expand them somewhat for the material in the appendix.
But whether you intend to have an appendix or not, keep everything you do. Put it in a folder and save it on your hard drive even if you lose interest in the world or it never sells or you have far more stuff than you think you’d ever need. You may find that you’ll go back later and use that material on another project. Your subconscious may work on it even when you’re not actively thinking about it.
Worldbuilding work is never wasted, even if you eventually abandon that story or novel, or it never manages to find publication. At worst, it was practice for the next time.
A few books to read (in no particular order…)
J.R.R. Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings -- this is the archetype for much of modern “high fantasy” and a still a fabulous example of obsessive worldbuilding
Frank Herbert: Dune -- a science fictional example of fine worldbuilding
Ursula K. LeGuin: The Earthsea Trilogy -- another good example of fantasy worldbuilding by on the genre’s most well-respected writers
Jared Diamond: Guns, Germs, and Steel -- a non-fiction book, but one which every writer of speculative fiction should read, if only to see how the various aspects of a world all tie together and affect each other.
Joseph & Frances Gies: Life in a Medieval City; Life in a Medieval Castle -- non-fiction and old books, but probably still in print. A very accessible (and interesting) view of how life might have really been for people in medieval times.
Barbara W. Tuchman: A Distant Mirror -- non-fiction. An interesting view of how a catastrophe (the Black Plague) affected the entire western world in the 15th century.