How to World-Build Without Starting from Scratch or Writing a Series

If you listen to most of the advice given to novelists, you will find the top tip being that they write a series of books. The idea is if someone reads one of your books, they will more than likely read all of your books. This, of course, requires a bit of world building to make your books believable and irresistible to your readers. 

It’s good writing advice as far as it goes, and it makes sense for many of the most popular genres on the market. Fantasy, detective fiction, science fiction, and some subgenera of romance especially thrive on the multi-novel series with its own universe. Some practically depend on it. But it can work for any genre. 

Hollywood has caught on too with the idea of world building or a multiverse where a studio can produce several different movie series, television series, and tie them all together. Marvel and DC are the most notable and Pixar is perhaps the most subtle. 

While there are undeniable advantages to it, marketing is easier for one, it’s not all that new. Most of the classics connect to one another in a similar fashion. There are different narratives, and stories, true, but nearly every great novel is part of a saga that stretches all the way back to Homer. 

What our ancestors term “authority” we term “Easter eggs” or “multiverse.” 

Pixar movies are now fairly famous for their Easter eggs. There are even fan theories about how they’re all interconnected. In one of my own favorites, Monsters, Inc, Boo has toys that are characters from the other Pixar productions, even the original ball from the first short. 

If the Pixar animators were writing anything around 150 years ago, however, their Easter eggs would be called something else–authority. Writers of any kind appealed to “authority” to establish themselves. If someone else had already done work in the field, written a particular story, started a particular literary tradition, or a line of thought, then that person was an authority to whom a writer could appeal and build upon. 

You see this in Virgil, who appeals to Homer’s account of the Trojan War. Virgil is an authority for Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Geoffrey of Monmouth, and more. Not only does this establish the writer’s authority, but it places their work in the same world and tradition as the authority in question. 

The thing about this method? The people who appeal to an “authority” generally end up becoming authorities themselves. Take Shakespeare, for instance. When Horace Walpole wrote The Castle of Otrantoand received criticism for it–he argued for his novel’s merits based upon the fact it imitated Shakespeare.

Alexander Pope and John Dryden also appealed to Shakespeare for their own works. Pope and Dryden themselves also became well-respected authorities. Dryden’s work on Virgil, in fact, is still considered some of the finest in all of academia.

John Milton, often called the English Homer, appealed to Horace and Virgil as his poetic inspiration, but also took inspiration from the Christian Bible. He became an authority too. If you read Frankenstein, both Percy and Mary Shelley appeal to his authority and make his Paradise Lost one of the sources (and justifications) for Frankenstein himself and for the monster. 

Authority was not just a way of establishing legitimacy, however. It’s also a way of nearly automatically relating to your audience (most of whom would have recognized the references you were making) and a way of expanding your readership.

So, if you don’t have a series in you, do what all of our ancestors did: appeal to authority. Or, in modern terms, throw in a few Easter Eggs.

Ancient world builders and their descendants are everywhere in both books and movies. 

Think all of this is above your head? I can almost guarantee that you know more than you think you do. You know the stories and, by extension, the writers who did world-building throughout history. You just may not know their names. 

Poets like Homer and Hesiod, philosophers like Plato, and, of course, the 4 Roman poets we ignore in today’s world, all built their worlds with borrowed components from other writers . You know their works because they have become parts of other stories. Homer’s story of the Trojan War is as ubiquitous as Mickey Mouse.

Still not sure? The Brothers Grimm, Andrew Lang, and Charles Perrault are probably better known to you through the Disney versions of the stories they recorded. Oh, and Disney did a movie on Hercules and a sequence with Bacchus in Fantasia. And that’s even before we get into Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series. 

See? You know your Homer, your Hesiod, and your Brothers Grimm. You’ve just seen the worlds they built. Not necessarily read the originals. 

The Post-Roman world had its own “myth makers” often in the form of histories, hagiographies, and confessions. Geoffrey of Monmouth was one. Catherine of Sienna was another. Even Augustine of Hippo was something of a world builder in his own right. His own desperate search for meaning in his Confessions has influenced everything from how we use the term “god” to T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.

Dante’s world building took on yet another form and that was a double allegory. There was an element of real life but the figures in the Comedy not only had a real-world relevance, but they had an allegorical meaning too. How did he do that? Well, join our annual Week of Dante to find out! 

Providing a connection between your writing and the great writers immediately opens up your readership. 

There are books on my shelves specifically because of which writers or time periods they connect too. Jasper Fforde’s wonderful Eyre Affair and the books which follow it is one such book. Jennifer Lee Carrel’s Interred with their Bones and Haunt Me Still––both based on Shakespeare’s plays are two more. Another series? Karen Lee Street’s trilogy on Edgar Allan Poe. 

Why? Because I love Jane Eyre, Shakespeare, and Edgar Allan Poe. These are very obvious connections, of course. But there are other novels that do connect with other works. 

The Lord of the Rings not only connects to Beowulf, thanks to the Rohirrim, but to the legends of King Arthur. There’s also a connection to Macbeth through the Witch-King of Angmar who Eowyn fells at the Battle of the Pellenor. 

Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey will inevitably lead you to Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho and back to Fanny Burney’s Evelina

The advantage here, is that the more you know, especially the more high-quality literature you read, the better you are at connecting to it, drawing from it, and connecting to other people. Writers like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Jane Austen, and Charlotte Bronte are still major money makers for a reason. 

Oh, and Agatha Christie loved her Shakespearean Easter Eggs and her Greek myths.

Why do you think Bridgerton was a runaway success? It was the understated sensual romanticism of Jane Austen fully realized and with a little creative history thrown in. Just as Outlander was Sir Walter Scott’s romantic visions of the highlands with time-travel and, again, a little more spice. The world in which these stories take place already exists. 

All these series did was introduce a little extra kick that people today can appreciate.

World-building is about more than creating your own world; it’s about making connections in this one. 

We’re familiar with J. R. R. Tolkien’s escapism in Middle Earth. It’s more a way of dealing with this current world. However, Tolkien being Tolkien, Middle Earth isn’t just a way to escape the present world. It’s more a way of understanding and dealing with the present world. It’s no mistake that “Frodo Lives” became something of a slogan in the 1960s. Or that millennials, embroiled in the events of a post-9/11 world, fully threw themselves into Peter Jackson’s fandom. 

If you’re a LOTR fan, you know this to be true. Who hasn’t sighed with Sam at the end of The Return of the King, and even if we didn’t want to return to real life, at least found it easier to endure? 

That is what world-building is really about. It’s not about creating an entirely new world with its own laws, traditions, and history. It’s about creating something that is about the world in which we live with all the trials, challenges, loves, and losses we sustain as human beings. 

It doesn’t require a series, a complete mythology, or a ton of background research. You just need to know your world and how it connects to other people. This is why reading the works of the Ancient Romans or Medieval monks can be so gratifying because you realize, the more you read, the less there is really dividing you and someone who lived thousands of years ago. 

This is what you want your writing to capture. You don’t need to start from scratch. You don’t need to outdo yourself, and you don’t need an entire series of books to flesh out your ideas. You just need to lean on the ideas others have had before you and work them in with your own. 

And before you ask, it’s not cheating. Or cheapening. Shakespeare was a master of using other people’s material. As was Dante. Even Bram Stoker relied upon other source material for Dracula and Mary Shelley relied heavily upon John Milton for Frankenstein. 

So if it’s cheating or cheapening, then you have a lot of books out there, still making millions that say otherwise.

Just food for thought. 

Thank you for reading!

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6 thoughts on “How to World-Build Without Starting from Scratch or Writing a Series

  1. Hi Kathleen! What an engaging read. I’ll have to come back to it, one more time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you and I’m so very grateful you read the post and found it helpful! Make sure you check out the link in Daedalus Lex’s comment. He uses the idea of wormholes to describe the same thing.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes. I spotted it. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Very interesting, Kathleen! A more-informed discussion of what I grappled with in a recent blog on wormholes ( 🙂


    1. I read it and loved the idea! Wormholes are a great way of looking at it. Also, if you like the whole premise of the Stargate franchise, then it probably makes even more sense than using the ideas associated with Easter Eggs or “authority.”

      I used the analogy of world-building because if you come to it after only reading contemporary fiction, or fiction that is just stuck in one time or place (I have a post coming up on that soon too), then it’s slightly disorienting. It really is like stepping into another world–and one which is far wider than you’ve been led to believe. Once you’ve accepted the world isn’t what you think it is, or what one or the other fringe group claims it is, then the jig is up. You really might as well have wormholes, stargates, or even a tardis at your disposal!

      As always, thank you for your feedback and for reading!!! 😁😁🙏

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks, Kathleen. You always give me more to think about. Also, I loved the picture at the top 🙂 Gary

        Liked by 1 person

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