I spent a little time over the weekend looking through some old worldbuilds to find inspiration for a current project. As I looked through a lot of old files, I got to thinking about the question of details in world design. I’ve written about this previously, primarily about level of detail and when design needs to stop so writing can occur. But, this review got me thinking about where we add details.
For example, Tolkien typically added detail through description, named legendary items, and languages. His philological background obviously informed this decision as did his experience with Beowulf and other Saxon and Norse literature. His genre played a part as well, with a medieval secondary world, certain elements just don’t work well.
Rowling, on the other hand, in part due to her sub-genre adds detail through her use of language (re-defining, rather than inventing new languages) and little things. By little things, I mean her use of book titles, candy names, brand names (Firebolt, Clean Sweep), team names, and such. Her use of shop names adds a bit too, instead of a generic “pet shop” or “bookstore” of several urban fantasy writers, readers know the names of almost every store on Diagon Alley.
I suppose the question here becomes: how much of the detail is done in the worldbuild stage and how much comes organically through the drafting/writing stage? I’m not really sure there’s a definite answer there, I’m thinking it may depend on the writer and the world.