Top 5 Worldbuilding Tips for Conquering #NaNoWriMo

Welcome back to the National Novel Writing Month blog series! In previous entries, you’ve explored the importance of outlining your plot and your characters.

There’s only two more Mondays before #NaNoWriMo participants break from the starting line, hotly pursuing the elusive 50,000-word finish line.

Now is the time to design your setting—before your daily word count looms over your creativity.

By this point, you know the essential events of your plot and can hold conversations with your characters. This week, you’ll establish the world your characters inhabit, one helpful tip at a time.

Tip #1: Use a Map

Maps are an invaluable tool when designing a world. If your NaNo novel is set in a real location, you should be able to find an accurate map online. Better yet, if your location is not only real but modern, Google Street View allows you take a virtual stroll almost anywhere, from Paris’ Eiffel Tower to New York’s skyscrapers.

On the other hand, your location might be entirely fabricated, like my novel’s primary world of Termoris. In this case, you can let your creativity run wild as your draft your own original map. Don’t worry if you aren’t an artist—my earliest maps of Termoris are muddled, ugly, inconsistent, and altogether laughable. (Frankly, my current draft isn’t much better!)

The important thing is to have a rough idea of where things are located relative to one another.

If your book is eventually published, whether traditionally or independently, the final map will be a professional artist’s job, anyway.

Tip #2: Give Locations Evocative Names

Names are your reader’s first impression.

If your setting is a real place, then actual names abound; if your setting is wholly creative, you have to do the naming yourself.

Everyone has their own preferred methods of naming characters and locations. Personally, I’ve altered words from other languages (mostly Latin,) smashed multiple words together into a single frankenword, kept typing letter combinations until something looked right… The list goes on.

If naming doesn’t come naturally to you, either, online name generators are freely available.

Try saying your location names aloud to see if they evoke the intended response.

You wouldn’t want to name a deadly swamp “Mudpuddle,” but that might work just find for the mushroom-covered habitat of your friendly forest gnomes. Experimentation is key! Don’t be afraid to laugh at yourself along the way.

Tip #3: Use Setting to Reflect Theme & Character

On a surface level, setting provides a physical space in which your characters live, struggle, and grow, but that’s not all.

Your setting also provides unique opportunities to amplify your novel’s theme.

Your theme might not become crystal-clear until your first draft is finished. In my case, it took a rough draft and a complete rewrite before the key themes of “The Fire Breathes” presented themselves; I had to undergo some personal growth before my protagonist’s growth fell into place.

Nevertheless, long before the details made sense, I could have told you what my base-level theme was: Finding identity in a transitional phase of life.

As a result, the settings of my novel vary widely, and the characters frequently move between them—from the relentless heat of the Wastelands to the icy water of the River Barrier to the chilly heights of the Arcadia Peaks. “The Fire Breathes” is a novel about dragons, but at its core, it’s about the inescapable pressure of change. Its shifting settings reflect that.

For the sake of example, let’s say your novel’s theme is the opposite of mine. Instead of transitions, you’re writing about stasis. How might your setting reflect this? Maybe your protagonist is trapped in a decaying house—perhaps one haunted by ghosts that refuse to leave. Maybe your villain’s primary goal is to prevent change in the small town he’s always called home.

The Creative Penn writes, “The human brain is wired to look for patterns. We see faces in clouds, and food, we find patterns in random sounds that seem similar to music. When you start adding elements of theme to your setting there is a deeper level of patterns for your readers to find in each scene.”

Writer Mag uses the example of Stewart O’Nan’s short story, “Last Night at the Lobster,” which revolves around a theme of isolation. Naturally, it follows that the central Red Lobster restaurant is supposed to be closing, but its employees are trapped inside by a brutal blizzard.

As the setting reveals theme, it can also open opportunities for your characters to do the same.

Returning to the haunted house example, how does your protagonist feel about the house—or about the ghosts, for that matter? Maybe they have no interest in repairing the house (or exorcising the spirits) because it has always been this way, and so it should remain this way. How familiar are they with the house’s quirks? Do they, much like the setting, have established, unbreakable routines that take place within the house each day?

Tip #4: Start by Answering Questions

If you enjoyed the suggested outline methods and character sheets of the previous #NaNoWriMo blogs, this tip is for you. Once again, the Internet has lovingly bestowed lists of potential worldbuilding questions that help build your universe with each answer.

Even if you’re more of a free spirit, these questions provide a fabulous place to begin before you throw yourself headlong into brainstorming.

Tip #5: Use Real Inspiration

Whether your setting is modern, past, or entirely imagined, you might as well tattoo the word “research” on your forehead now—because it’s about to occupy every spare brain cell you have.

This also applies for fantastical realms inspired by real places and times, such as Leigh Bardugo’s richly Russian world of Ravka. (You’ll likely catch me referencing Bardugo’s work often. The Grishaverse is one of my favorites.)

You don’t need to include every detail you learn in your final manuscript, lest it sound more like a history lesson than a heroic adventure, but having that research up your sleeve is invaluable.

As a homeschooled teenager, I had constant access to an ever-broadening collection of ancient history textbooks, visual guides, and more, all of which I consulted frequently during early drafts of my current YA fantasy novel, “The Fire Breathes.” Little details, like which colors of dye were expensive or what weapons were most common in an earlier age, injected life into my imaginary universe.

Building a world can be intimidating—it certainly is for me—but with these five tips in hand, you’re prepared to start strong.

No matter how interesting your world is, the setting is there to serve the story and characters.

Don’t get too lost in the oceans, space stations, historical cities, or cursed woods of your manuscript. In only a few short weeks, it’ll be time to start telling your #NaNoWriMo story properly.

What’s your favorite setting you’ve seen recently, whether in a novel, a film, or a video game? Why do you think the setting served the story so well?

Feel free to share your ideas for next week’s #NaNoWriMo post through my Twitter, Facebook, or the comments below. And as always, if you enjoyed what you read, subscribe to be the first to know when the next blog post goes live!