Writing is a long, involved process. Worldbuilding is an integral part of that process, in those works that need it. And just as there are different ways to go about writing a novel, movie, or video game, there’s no one way to build the world your story needs.
A lot of authors plan their works out in detail. For more visual media, it’s almost always this way, simply because there you have things like an effects budget and the limitations of the medium. The writer is only one part of a larger team, and he has to fit in with that team. In those cases, the world, like most other parts of the story, must be constructed before any actual writing is done.
On the other hand, those of us working purely in the written word don’t have such constraints. We’re usually working alone (not counting editors, cover artists, etc.; indies like me don’t have to worry about any of those anyway), and thus we don’t have to coordinate quite as much. That means we aren’t required to plot out the details beforehand. We can get away with a much rougher sketch of where we want the story to go.
In “writing jams” like NaNoWriMo, it’s crucial that we work this bit of literary improvisation. We’re often working under a strict, if informal, time limit, so there’s not enough time to waste on the equivalent of storyboarding. For Nocturne last November, to give you a concrete example, I started with not much more than a beginning and a vague idea of an ending. As I progressed, I filled in more and more details, and that sometimes took the story in directions I could not have anticipated on November 1. It’s a more organic style of writing, and it may not be for everyone. But it works for building the story’s world, too.
Throwing something together
Let me put this out there first: if you’re worldbuilding on the fly, so to speak, you’re never going to get anything as deep as if you plan and plot early. But then, that’s not the point of the exercise. Sometimes, you really don’t need a truly deep world, you just need the facsimile of one. You can get that easily enough.
If you don’t mind the necessary limitations of the process, then we’re ready to go. First, how much work you’ll need to do will depend on what you’re making. Short stories (and similar works in some other medium) might not require much more than a few names. Novels and longer works are going to need more thought. But it won’t be too much more. So let’s take a look at some of the different parts of worldbuilding that we can tinker with in the middle of writing:
Character names: Obviously, it’s almost certain you’ll have the protagonist’s name chosen before you start writing. (If you’ve got more than one, then the same goes for all of them.) And other major characters will likewise be the kind that can’t be, say, randomly chosen or generated. Everybody else—the NPCs, to use gaming terminology—is fair game. If they’re only going to appear in one scene, how much thought do they really need?
Place names: The same goes for places, in general. Those central to the story are most likely to be worked out prior to the writing. Minor places mentioned in passing can be named as they come up. Those that no one will ever go to are just names, after all, so what does it matter how you came up with them?
Cultural aspects: These are a bit harder, because it’s not just a matter of picking a name from a list. But foreign peoples, for instance, can be given “foreign” mannerisms (defined by your target audience or the standards set by the central cast), and that will serve in a pinch. Again, it’s a matter of prioritization: the less important something is, the less time you should spend thinking about it.
Geography: This one’s almost too easy. If your story doesn’t include a map, you practically get a blank canvas. Sticking to the common conventions of our planet (rivers run downhill, etc.) takes you most of the way. You can also extend this to astronomy, for example. Need a solar eclipse? They may only happen once or twice a year around the world, but your story is special. Unless it’s centered on observations of the sun, few will care that the event happened at just the right time and place. (Of course, if that eclipse lasts an hour and a half, you’ll need to provide an explanation as to why.)
Pay no attention
Naming is the easiest part of worldbuilding, in terms of efficiency. For the cost of making a few words, you get something that will stick in a reader’s mind. And this works even when you don’t put too much effort into making them. Sure, if you throw together a mishmash of names from around the world, they’re going to clash. But keeping to a small circle of sources gets you quite far.
This is what I’ve done for my Linear Anthology series of short stories. Most “common” names are simple English words describing people, constructions, or natural phenomena: River, Jasmine, Ford, Melody. The higher class of the setting, however, uses names I’ve drawn from a number of sources that are, in our world, in close proximity. Some come from Scandinavia, others from Finnish, Lithuanian, Latvian, Estonian—all places not too far from each other. In a few cases, I’ve changed spellings, and that’s a good way to “hide” the true nature of your names. But since I don’t expect ever doing a book signing in Helsinki, I’m not worried about someone calling me out on the absurdity of my names.
Basically, what I’ve done is decide on a theme for my naming. From there, I’ve tweaked a few things as I’ve gone, such as deciding that the Scandinavian-style names are restricted to the northern part of the setting. These little additions don’t change much in the grand scheme of things, but they add a little bit of flavor that makes your world feel a slightly more alive.
For culture, it’s a little harder. In a short story, you might not have to worry about it too much, but longer works will have many references to a culture, and it’s best if you’re not slavishly copying medieval Europe (for fantasy) or Star Trek (for sci-fi). Here, you can swipe an idea or two from somewhere you like…but only if it fits. And remember that cultural changes will have knock-on effects throughout society. It might be great to add a caste system, but then that will create secondary conflicts with protagonists going outside their “appropriate” station. Which may be what you want, come to think of it.
As for the world itself, fantasy authors can all but assume they’re working with a world similar enough to Earth that they only have to worry about minor differences. Science fiction gets less of a pass by default, but you can still lean hard on the genre tropes here. That’s why they’re tropes: they’re the literary shortcuts we’ve come to accept. If you’re writing a sci-fi short story where it doesn’t matter how FTL travel works, then why bother coming up with an explanation that will, inevitably, leave at least somebody unsatisfied? Working under a time limit, that’s just wasteful. And you can always go back and fill in the blanks later, if need be.
And that’s really the moral of this post. You don’t have to get everything right the first time. Paint in broad strokes to begin with, then fill in details as needed. It may turn out that you never needed them at all.