ADDING DETAILS ON THE FLY:

Five fast tips to help your worldbuilding.

By: DeAnna Knippling

So, there I was, writing a story but didn’t have time to stop and research a few points.  Just kidding!  I always have time to stop and research.  My problem is taking too much time to stop and research.  I can research literally all day while chasing details down the rabbit hole.

Other people struggle to identify opportunities to do research.  “I’ll just name the character Bob,” they say. “And why would I bother to describe this hallway? It’s just a hallway.” Yet when they get feedback that the story didn’t grab their readers, they’re mystified.

If you’re looking for a) ways to write details that don’t require reading six nonfiction books and a pile of research, or b) ways to stop naming all your characters Bob and putting them in Everytown, USA, then here are five tips to help you find a balance between going down the research rabbit hole and forgetting to add details to your setting.

1. Research character names

Quick mental exercise:  How old is a woman named Evelyn?  How old is a woman named Madison?

Even common names (both of them come from the Social Security Administration’s top names over the last 100 years) can reflect different character backgrounds, ages, and characters.  Does Madison go by Maddy, Mads, or her full name?  Is Evelyn an Eve, a Lynn, or an Evvie?

Here are some quick ways to snag names that will help with your worldbuilding:

  • Look up cemetery records for your settings.  I love Interment.net.
  • Work out the year the character was born and look up popular baby names that year.  I like the Social Security’s website, which can sort by decade, state, and more. 
  • If you have a character in a historical or secondary world (an alien, elf, etc.), try looking up character name generators.  One of my favorites is the Dickens Character Generator.  Today’s name: Virgilius Bummitch. I also like the Fantasy Name Generator site, which covers far more than just fantasy names. 

2. Research interior locations

No character is ever in just a “house,” “office,” “school,” or “hallway.”  The walls aren’t uniformly white, and there isn’t always a picket fence in the front yard.  Do a quick image search and find two things you expect to see, and one you didn’t, or one that really struck you. 

Some good location tips:

  • Real estate websites.  I like Zillow, because it lets me sort by location, price, house size, year built, and other details. Could my character afford it?
  • Image searches.  The trick here is to include words like “interior” and add a location name.  A search for “hospital” will get you a lot of bland white rooms with people in scrubs.  If you see a lot of similar, non-specific results, then you’re probably getting stock photos and not pictures of actual places.  

3.  Get a feel for the area with Street View

No two areas are exactly alike.  If your characters tend to end up in “Everytown, USA,” then it’s time to narrow your focus. It’s perfectly okay to pick locations you’re familiar with, even if you change the names to protect people’s privacy.  Please change the names of businesses!

Zoom out to the country you want to use, then start clicking until you zoom in on a town that’s about the right size for your story.  Use Google Street View by dropping the little yellow person icon on a street.  Congratulations! You now have a location.  Some things to look for:

  • Is the area more urban or rural?
  • What kind of climate does the plant life (or lack thereof) imply?
  • What else is nearby? If your character needs certain resources (like a grocery store), are they close?

Describing an area with two elements you expected and one element you didn’t is almost always a good idea.

4. Unimportant characters still deserve their own faces.

Probably you’ve picked out the identities of your main characters before you start writing. But what about everyone else?

  • Do an image search for the person’s location and job title, then pick the first face that “grabs” you. 
  • Search Wikipedia for “[location name] demographics.” Pull up a random number generator like Number Generator for the numbers 1-100, and start playing the odds to determine the character’s gender, race, age, relationship status, and more.

My advice is not to give more than three distinct elements to a background character, or to use the same three elements every time. 

5. YouTube = sounds and movement.

What does your character sound like?  Take a moment to search YouTube for “[location name] accent,” “accent challenge,” or “accent tag.”

Most of the time when writing an accent, you want to focus on word choice and rhythm—not using apostrophes or misspellings to indicate sounds. You may notice that people slip deeper into an accent when they’re around people with the same accent, or try to use a more “neutral” accent if they want to sound smart!

What does the setting feel like?  Look on YouTube for your location name to see if you can find YouTubers in local settings, not talking but just recording what’s going on around them. 

Often you can search for “[location name] driving” and get a video of people driving through different neighborhoods.  Another good search is “[location name] wilderness.” Videos without music are best. Another good search term is “tour of [location name].”

And yes, you can do this for non-real locations.  NASA has the first video that pops up for “tour of spaceship.” It’s pretty cool. And often the game Assassin’s Creed has amazingly detailed locations with a lot of historical accuracy, which players will record and post on YouTube for you.

These are simple, no-brainer tips; often when we’re writing, it’s just a matter of remembering to use them.  Every place outside of a Twilight Zone episode is a real place—or at least real to itself—and it’s filled with people with distinct identities, accents, and attitudes. 

If you leave your settings on “default” or “who cares, it’s not important to the plot” all the time, you’re missing a major chance to make the reader feel like you’ve built them a real world to play around in—whether it’s in space, the past, a fictional location, or a fantasy one.


DeAnna Knippling

DeAnna Knippling has two minor superpowers: speed-reading and babble. She types at over 10,000 words per minute and can make things up even faster than that. Her first job was hunting snipe for her father at twenty-five cents per head, with which she paid her way through college; her latest job involves a non-disclosure agreement, a dozen hitmen, a ballerina, a snowblower, three very small robots, and a disposable dictator in South America. Her cover job is that of freelance writer, editor, and designer living in Littleton, Colorado, with her husband, daughter, cat, more than one cupboard full of various condiments, and many shelves full of the very best books. She has her own indie small press, www.WonderlandPress.com, and her website is www.DeAnnaKnippling.com.