A Conversation About Outlining and Worldbuilding

My friend Tim Rohr, a talented young writer, emailed me recently with a series of questions about worldbuilding and outlining, and the intersection of those elements of my prep work for writing a novel or series. His questions grew out of a post on outlining that I wrote for the Magical Words blogsite, and out of his reading of my Winds of the Forelands quintet and Blood of the Southlands trilogy. Our ensuing emails, I believe, lend themselves well to an online discussion of these issues, and so I present the first exchange here. I’ll follow up with more of our online conversation in my post next month.

Here are some of the questions in Tim’s words: “How much world-building you do before you put pen to paper? Or before you outline?  Where do your outlining and your world-building intersect? And to what extent is it sequential? Do those sequences overlap? How much of your world-building would we see in a finished novel? How much detail did you leave in the file because the prose never called for it?”

And my answer:

There is no quick answer to any of this, so let me riff on the subject(s) for a while and see if I come close to addressing your questions.  If not, we can always try again.

First let me say that the pantser/outliner thing is probably not quite as clear cut as my previous comments implied.  I don’t see it as an either/or choice, but rather as two extremes on a continuum, if that makes any sense.  Lately, I’ve been doing less outlining, relying more on my creative flow in the moment.  I still have some general sense of where I’m headed when I begin a book, and usually somewhere in the middle, as the plot point ideas are coming fast and furious, I’ll jot down what might generously be called “an outline” — a list of remaining mile posts that I have to hit before the story ends.

To be honest, though, until I read your email, I hadn’t connected my outlining habits to worldbuilding/research issues, though as soon as you mentioned it, the connections made all kinds of sense to me.  But having said that, I don’t think that I’m doing any more work on setting now than I was earlier in my career, when my outlines had more meat on them. Rather, as I said, it’s more a matter of trusting my creative process.  Even when I outlined “a lot,” my outlines were incredibly vague — maybe two sentences for a chapter.  They allowed me to keep track of switches in point of view [POV] character, and the flow of my various narrative threads.  But even then, most of what I wrote — description, action, dialogue — happened in the moment.  I saw things and “said” things as my characters did.  I was transcribing more than writing.  And I still do that.  But now I’m writing single point of view books that are mysteries instead of multi-POV castle intrigues, so I have less that I need to track. That, I think, is why I’m outlining less.

My worldbuilding for the Forelands books might well have been the most detailed I did for any series.  I had information about all the major dukedoms, I had royal genealogies for several countries, I had historical timelines, detailed maps, deity pantheons, myths and legends that I wrote and posted on my website.  I knew that world inside out.  And I think that the books benefitted from that.  A lot of it carried over to the Southlands, since the lands are connected and share some common heritage.  I had felt that my first series was not as well planned out as it ought to have been — I was so green when I started it — and I didn’t want to make that mistake a second time.  And yet for all that work, and for all that you see as you read the books, most of what I came up with in my worldbuilding never found its way into the books. That, I think, is as it should be.  I believe in the iceberg approach — as a writer, I want to know EVERYTHING about my world (or as close to everything as possible).  There is no way to give all that information to readers without resorting to data dumps, so I don’t even try.  But what winds up happening is that the small details I do give manage to convey the weight of all that unseen work.  There is enough behind each descriptive passage, that the details manage to add depth, dimension, texture, etc. without detracting from narrative flow….

So, how much is “enough” and how much is too much?  I have no idea. It’s different for every book.  I began the worldbuilding process for the Forelands by reading Greek, Celtic, Norse, and even Basque mythology, and by thumbing through old European history textbooks, looking at royal blood lines and historical timelines, trying to get a feel for the ebb and flow of “real” history.  (My history Ph.D. is in U.S. — not a lot of royalty here, so I was treading on less familiar ground.)  Once I had looked through that stuff I began working on my own maps and histories etc.  I intended to do even more than I did — I only did timelines and lines of kings for some countries; I had planned to do them all.  But at some point I began to realize that, a) I had the important stuff for all the important settings; and b) I had reached a point where I didn’t think that the stuff I was coming up with would do me any good at all, even as deep, deep background.

That’s when I started to write.

Except that the process is not this cut and dry.  And now we reach the crux of your questions.  The fact is that while I was worldbuilding I was also plotting and developing character and starting to envision scenes in my head.  And even after I was well into the book, I occasionally found that I needed a bit of information about my world that I hadn’t come up with yet.  So worldbuilding fed the writing, and at times writing fed worldbuilding.  I talk a lot about synergy in writing:  about how, when things are really cooking, when the mojo is really right, there are no boundaries.  Character work feeds narrative, which reinforces worldbuilding, which deepens description, which strengthens voice and point of view, which enriches character, which feeds narrative, which reinforces worldbuilding… Rinse, lather, repeat.  I felt that a bit with my first series, but I really felt it with the Forelands books and everything I’ve done since.  The fact is that all these things happen simultaneously, which brings us back to the earlier point:  Worldbuilding can’t help but strengthen the outlining I try to do as I begin a book, and it also can’t help but make my “pantsing” easier and more coherent.

Earlier I mentioned the stuff I’m writing now [Chronicles of the Thieftaker, under the name D.B. Jackson].  It’s historical urban fantasy. The urban fantasy label means that the mystery element is strong and that I have only one point of view character.  That has made my outlining less intensive.  The historical element has forced me to reexamine my approach to worldbuilding.  Research and worldbuilding are really interchangeable in my view.  There is very little difference between the stuff I did for the Forelands books and the research I’ve been doing on 1760s Boston for the Thieftaker books.  Once more, I’ve been trying to figure out how much is enough, but this time I’m not just worried about keeping things consistent, I’m also worried about getting stuff right, because now there really is right and wrong.  But that’s a matter for another discussion.

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There are 12 comments. Get the RSS feed for comments on this entry.

  1. 1. L. Jagi Lamplighter (Wright)

    Nice article, David.

  2. 2. David B. Coe

    Thank you, Jagi.

  3. 3. Jamie Todd Rubin

    Great article, David, and timely too. My writers group is having a discussion on outlining this week, and I’ve pointed the lot of them to this post. Thanks!

  4. 4. Tim Rohr

    Thanks again, David. I hope this helps others as much as it did me.


  5. 5. David B. Coe

    Glad you enjoyed it, Jamie. Thanks for sending readers this way. Hope all is well.

  6. 6. David B. Coe

    My pleasure, Tim. Thank you for the questions.


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Author Information

David B. Coe

David B. Coe (http://www.DavidBCoe.com) is the Crawford award-winning author of the LonTobyn Chronicle, the Winds of the Forelands quintet, the Blood of the Southlands trilogy, and a number of short stories. Writing as D.B. Jackson (http://www.dbjackson-author.com), he is the author of the Thieftaker Chronicles, a blend of urban fantasy, mystery, and historical fiction. David is also part of the Magical Words group blog (http://magicalwords.net), and co-author of How To Write Magical Words: A Writer’s Companion. In 2010 he wrote the novelization of director Ridley Scott’s movie, Robin Hood. His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages. Visit site.



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