Every writer has certain parts of the writing process that fill them with joy, along with others that fill them with dread. Naturally, those preferences vary for each of us. Some writers adore character development, while others despise it. Some loathe plotting, while for others, it's the first thing they want to do when they get up in the morning.
I'm a storyteller, so for me, pounding out the first draft is a natural high. The type of scene doesn't matter; just cut me loose and let me write it. Whether it's a heart-pounding action scene or a tender moment of romance that takes your breath away, I feel right at home. When it comes time to do world-building, however, I freeze up like I've got icicles for legs.
At no point was this weakness more obvious than it was this past weekend at my critique group meeting. I brought some sample pages from a young adult fantasy novel I've been working on, eager for feedback. I'd brought the pages in before, gotten them critiqued and made adjustments based on the notes I was given, and I was optimistic that my changes had greatly improved the story.
I waited with bated breath as my critique partners carefully review the revised pages, trying not to read over their shoulders as they took meticulous notes. Finally, they put down their pens and said the last words I'd wanted to hear:
"The overall writing is solid, but your world still doesn't feel real to me."
Argh. Cue the wailing and gnashing of teeth here.
I know what you're thinking: "But you like fantasy---fairies, elves, unicorns, dwarves and the like. Shouldn't creating races, maps and languages be your idea of a good time?" And my response is, you must be thinking of Tolkien. I skipped all those long descriptions of setting and elf songs in Lord of the Rings. Gimme sword fights and a good makeout scene over that stuff any day.
Here's the problem, though. Have you ever had a moment when you're neck-deep in a great story and you suddenly find yourself wondering, "Yes, but why did those people mutate twenty years ago? And why didn't they all mutate? And why do they keep fighting over that territory?" Moments like that are distracting and pull your readers out of the story; if they happen often enough, people stop reading altogether. If the world you've created doesn't make sense to your readers, they can't fully connect with the story you're telling---no matter how good it is.
Oh, and if you think this is all just for fantasy/sci-fi writers and our races of green people who speak Icktock and live on Mars, you're mistaken. World-building is just as important whether you're writing a Western, a contemporary romance or an updated fairy tale. It's not enough to know the names and occupations of your characters. You need to know about the town he grew up in, how big her high school was and whether his third-grade teachers was mean or not. These details may seem insignificant to you, but often they are the difference between characters who lie flat on the page, and ones who live, breathe and touch your readers' hearts. They can turn a good story into a great one, and isn't that what all writers want?
So. If you'll excuse me, I have to go draw some maps now.
What about you? What steps do you take to make the worlds in your stories feel more real to your readers?