Even if the world you're writing about is
real, as a writer you still need to make that world feel
real and believable. As we've all learned from the present administration, it's possible to write about the world you live in and still have it be utterly implausible: Not every world feels reality-based.
What You Need to Put In
There's an awful lot you need to know about a world in order to write a book. The good news is that you don't need to know all of it before you get started. It's easy to get so caught up with discovering every minutiae about how the world works that you never actually get around to writing the book. It's just as possible to write a book set in as world so generic that it's impossible to believe anyone actually lives there. As a writer, you'll be steering a middle course between these two extremes, like trying to avoid being caught between Karl Rove's worldview and Dick Cheney's worldview.
Once you've got a clear enough picture of the world - or the corner of it that you're writing about - to pull together an outline - you should try to do so. Figuring out what story you want to tell in this world will determine what parts of the world you really need to develop. If your story concerns a young boy's rise from abject poverty to become an unlikely leader and unifying figure at a time of civil war, you need to know how education works for different classes of people, how the economy works, and what the roots of the political and social tensions are. If it's Lincoln or Marcos you're writing about, you don't need to flesh out every detail of local religious practices, beyond their basic background level in your story. If it's Sadr or Luther, you need to be a little more thoroughly grounded in religion.
These answers shoudn't be too simple - people are complex, and have many identities. People's motivations won't be any more simple and linear in a fantasy world than in our own reality, and that sort of linear thinking was responsible for the belief that Iraqis would welcome U.S. soldiers as liberators. (Sociological typecasting has produced the opposite result as well: In What is History, E. H. Carr famously pointed out that everyone thought that Russian peasants were deeply religious... until 1917.)
Individual details of your world don't need to be too fleshed out, any more than individual bits of your outline do: You need to know the generalities, and the parts that are more specific you'll write when you get to them. You need to know that magic works, and that wizards all go to school in Cincinnati where they are inducted into the secret rites of the Trilateral Society, and that Alan Greenspan and Warren Buffet are the leaders of the order. You don't need to work out the whole history of the order, or compose the minutes of the founding meeting at the old Riverfront Stadium, or list the curriculum of the school. If you need any of that, you can write it when the time comes.
In other words, the general details of the world need to be clear in your head, to a level of detail where you can fill in missing information consistently with the story, and so that all of the foreground details and a representive sprinkling of background details can be brought to life.
What You Need to Leave Out
Here's the bad news for dramatically detail-oriented folks: Only about 10% of the world you create will ever get used in the book you're writing. Making a world come to life isn't about telling readers everything; it's about giving them telling details. (Otherwise it becomes, as Yog once put it, "two issues of Guns & Ammo with dialogue.") When you've gone to the trouble of building a believable world, it's tough to leave out all your research, but you have to resist the temptation to put it all on the page. The reader doesn't need (or want) to know everything about your world. What the reader wants is to feel the illusion that you know everything about it.
You, of course, make the shit up out of whole cloth, at least if you're writing fiction (or Republican policy). But the right specific details will give the impression that the world is real. Having a character quote the perfect couplet from the perfect song carries a lot more weight than having her dutifully recite the whole song to other characters who already know it. (That sort of "As you know, Bob," moments - Yog's words again - in which a character turns to another and repeats something they both already know for the reader's benefit kill a story dead. While you're at it, try to avoid info dumps in general, since they tend to form into indigestible expository lumps at the bottom of the reader's stomach.)
Another important point: Don't make your world too static. In order to feel real, a world should be in the midst of transition. History, after all, is the study of change over time, and even the periods of history that look the most tepid from afar tended to feel jarringly full of abrupt changes to the people actually living in them. That doesn't mean the stakes have to be the end of the world or even life or death. For instance, Roger Kahn's Boys of Summer, one of the best and most poignant books about baseball and the craft of writing ever written, brings to life Brooklyn from the Depression through the late 1940s on the one hand - a world in one kind of transition - and the pain and loss for baseball players who go from heroes to forgotten has-beens while they're still young - a very different kind of transition. Neither of these worlds is one that many of us have lived in, yet Kahn is able to give readers enough detail to stay connected without getting bogged down in the parts that we really can't connect to. The world he creates works because it feels as if he's lived in it, but he doesn't feel the need to tell us everything about it.
As a writer, you need to know your world thoroughly, but your characters may not. Don't forget that their scope will be limited, and they won't look at things with the same perspective you do. You may need to restrict what you tell your readers to what the characters know. Conversely, you may choose to tell the readers more, and use the tension between what the characters know and what the readers know to push the plot forward. (Some writers take this even further, such as in James Alan Gardner's novel Expendable, where the protagonist is actually completely wrong in some key aspects of how the universe works.)
For instance, Richard Adams's Watership Down takes an ordinary piece of 1970s English countryside and turns it into a world filled with magic and terror by showing it from the perspective of a group of rabbits, making a real place feel like a fantasy world. By contrast, Michael Swanwick's The Iron Dragon's Daughter takes a world that is literaly magical and makes it ordinary and tawdry - a fantasy world out of Dickens rather than Tolkien - by showing it from the perspective of a girl stolen by faeries and put to work in a factory manufacturing iron dragons for a Halliburton-esque corporation fronted by elves in Italian suits.
Scenes from Next Week's Episode...
The election and pressing deadlines have been getting in the way of the Thursday night schedule for the last couple of weeks, but Thursday night latish is what I shoot for. There will be a special joint diary with Unitary Moonbat coming up the Saturday night before the election: a chance for everyone to participate in the creation of the parody Rove: The Roleplaying Game, which my gaming publisher has agreed to make available as a free ebook afterward.
The Rest of the "How Publishing Works" Series
I do still monitor and respond in the previous episodes, so feel free to post questions or comments in them if you'd like. And feel free to post requests for future topics in the comments as well.
Part 1 - Why bad things happen to good books.
Part 2 - Avoiding publishing scams.
Part 3 - Literary conventions (with an emphasis on SF Conventions).
Part 4 - Book packagers.
Part 5 - Submitting a manuscript.
Part 6 - Publishing lists.
Part 7 - Literary agents.
Part 8 - Copyediting.
Part 9 - Marketing and publicity.
Part 10 - Outlining.
Part 11 - Editing.
Part 12 - Ideas.
Part 13 - Contracts.
Part 14 - How Writers Get Paid.
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