From Reader to Writer: World Building Resources

Both readers and writers can agree that one of the best parts of stepping into an imaginative story is the immersive world building. From Tolkien’s Middle Earth to Rowling’s Wizarding World, the intricacies of creating an entire world are addictive. For genres like fantasy and science fiction that rely on otherworldly elements, it’s a writer’s ability to engage the five senses which hooks us into a story even more than writing plot or characters.

But when it comes to world building, the pressures of playing god can sometimes get really overwhelming. How do you keep it all straight? How do you determine the origins of your world, the climate, the geography, not to mention the cultures, races, plants, and animals that make your world not only believable, but habitable? How do you even know what questions to ask or what information is most important in your story?

As I’m working through my own writing, I’ve found that world building can be both a blessing and a curse. It’s immensely enjoyable to get lost in a world so different from my own, but world building is also an excellent excuse to create and create without really writing anything. I want to be careful not to risk getting “world builder’s disease,” an affliction that plagued even Tolkien where a writer creates every tiny, little detail of a world, inevitably running themselves into the ground and burning out.

To keep my thoughts organized, I’ve discovered this incredible resource. WorldAnvil is a free website that lets a writer, artist, or role-playing gamemaster organize an entire world in an encyclopedia format. The website has an article for various types of entries, and the articles prompt a range of questions that guide you through construction. WorldAnvil also has paid subscription options that offer access to more resources and functions in the website, but you can use the website without having to pay a thing.

I also found WorldAnvil’s YouTube channel and this video on tips for worldbuilding helpful. Beyond WorldAnvil, there are some great videos featuring advice from both seasoned writers and RPG game developers. This video on fantasy map construction is awesome!

Another amazing resource is best-selling author Brandon Sanderson’s lectures on writing. Many of his classes are available on YouTube including this one on worldbuilding.

When writing a story or even developing a world for a role-playing game, there are many elements and decisions to make. It’s intense and rewarding. Use this phase of your creative journey as an outlet to be eccentric and try things. When the real plotting begins, you’ll be so immersed in your story that much of the work will already be done.

What’s Ashley Reading?: Finding Dorothy

Living in Kansas it seems to be guaranteed that everyone knows the story of  The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum.  However, the book and the movie (starring Judy Garland) are quite different.  But how much do you know about the man who wrote the story?  Years ago there was a made for TV movie called The Dreamer of Oz, starring John Ritter, who portrayed Mr. Baum and detailed his life and the writing of his famous novel.  In a new book by Elizabeth Letts we get a look at Maud Gage Baum, the wife of the author.

Finding Dorothy by Elizabeth Letts

First line: It was a city within a city, a textile mill to weave the gossamer of fantasy on looping looms of celluloid.

Summary: Maud Gage Baum, the widow of the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, visits the set of the filming of The Wizard of Oz where she meets the young star, Judy Garland. Maud immediately feels a connection and need to protect the sixteen year old actress who will be portraying Dorothy. Told through flashbacks we see Maud’s life with husband, L. Frank Baum as they start out touring the country with a theater group to owning their own dry goods store to becoming a literary success.

Highlights: This was a fun jaunt through the history of one of the greatest movies/books of all time. I remember watching the movies numerous times as a child before I ever picked up one of the books. It is so much different but each are wonderful in their own ways. Nothing beats Judy Garland singing ‘Over the Rainbow’.

I know that the author took some liberties with the history to help suit the timeline and layout of her novel but the background of this iconic story is fascinating. Such a successful man (or so I would have assumed) struggled so much trying to find his place in the world. He tried multiple different careers before he wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Even though his story is entertaining, his wife was the strong one.

Maud Gage Baum was the daughter of famous suffragette, Matilda Joslyn Gage. She was a strong advocate for women’s right to vote, fighting alongside Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Maud learned from her to be bold and speak her mind. As I read I could tell that having such a strong mother helped Maud navigate her life with an eccentric husband and battling the studio to do justice to his novel.

Judy Garland and Maud Gage Baum looking at a copy of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

I loved every interaction that Maud had with Judy Garland. It is hard to imagine that Judy was only sixteen when she was cast in the role that sky rocketed her career. The poor girl had to deal with unbelievable things while preparing for this role including smoking 80 cigarettes a day and taking diet pills to keep her trim. It is outrageous. Maud tries to help Judy as much as possible in order to keep her promise to Frank to watch over “Dorothy”. This is the most heartwarming part of the novel, watching Maud make sure that Judy is Dorothy and Dorothy is Judy, and fighting for her.

Lowlights: There were several historical inaccuracies that are easily overlooked but at times also drove me a little crazy. One of Maud’s sisters was completely left out of the story. And the idea behind the character, Dorothy, was changed. However, the story does not suffer for any of this. Letts does a great job of weaving a fun and intricate story filled with all the magic of Oz.

FYI: Pick up the Oz books! Watch the movie!

From Reader to Writer: Finding Courage to Work

Do you remember what you were like when you were a child? You were fearless, unbridled, and free of the smudges left by other people’s opinions and motivations. If you said you were an astronaut, you were an astronaut despite the technicalities of school and space travel. But somewhere along the way, you grew and fear within you grew as well. The fear of expectation, failure, and entitlement took over and before you knew it, you couldn’t bear to call yourself an astronaut, let alone become one.

This is what happened to me. My oldest memory is that of calling myself a writer. From age three on, the answer I always gave to every adult who asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up was a writer. “Writer” became my identity. It didn’t matter if the writing was bad or if I never finished a project. I knew that somehow it would all work out, and I would find my name on a glossy, well-bound book on the shelf.

I can’t tell you when it started, but something snapped along the way. I found it uncomfortable to call myself a writer. Then I found it uncomfortable to write at all. Even after years of school, years of practice, and years of reading books, I still couldn’t seem to feel confident in the work I was doing. What was the right story, the right character, the right word? Soon, the fear became a dull excuse that manifested into too exhausted or too busy or too uninspired. Now it’s been months since I’ve touched my work, and that dream I was so sure of as a child is drifting further and further out to sea.

Unused creativity is not benign. If you find that you are called to create something and you resist that call, it will slowly eat away at you.

– Elizabeth Gilbert

I believe this to be true. I find myself resenting authors for their successes. I resent myself for my lack of discipline and confidence. And I miss my work. This must mean that the ideas and stories and characters that keep boggling my brain want to be heard. They don’t want me to leave them behind. Perhaps there is art that you have left behind too whether writing, drawing, dancing, film making, or singing.

Here are three resources that might help you find the courage to work:

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron

This is more of a class or workshop than a self-help book. Cameron provides concrete exercises and techniques to move you past your block or fear and into a space of making things that feels genuine and authentic.

Big Magic: Creative Living beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert

This book validates what you might be feeling. Gilbert uses her own experiences, and her perspective on creating something from nothing to challenge you out of your comfort zone.

Magic Lessons Podcast

Bringing Big Magic to life, this podcast features people who are struggling with creating and ask Elizabeth Gilbert for advice. Besides giving her own information and encouragement, Gilbert brings in professionals like Cheryl Strayed, Neil Gaiman, and Brene Brown to share their stories of how they conquer their fear and come to a place of fulfillment in their work.

I hope these resources might kick start your creativity. Let me know if you have ever felt fearful of making things or sharing your art, and I’ll be back with another post about my journey from reader to writer.