Building Your Milieu Before You Hit the Ground

Over the last twenty weeks, I’ve discussed ways to literally build your societies from the ground up. I’ve focused on the forces that push and pull on culture, and touched on the details I think bring a milieu to life. I’ve pondered on science, religion, philosophy, and the workings of the world only an author is ever likely to consider or investigate. And yet, there are countless words and thoughts left to be expressed on the topic of milieu.

At some point, however, you have to actually start writing the story at hand. So how do you know when you are done? Myself, I look at world building like jumping out of an airplane.

When you are starting your prewriting, you are standing in the plane at 30,000 feet, imagining all the possibilities of the jump. However, when that bay door opens and the moment to take your life into your own hands is upon you, you should have a good idea of what you are about to experience.

When gravity takes over, you’re on the clock. The first thing you need to do is survey your surroundings on the grand scale. Note the mountains and rivers, the major cities and those wild places untouched for a lifetime. There are no trees, only the forest, no buildings, only the city. As you get closer and closer to the ground, use these broad strokes to orient yourself on where you intend to land: the first page of your story.

Once you have ground zero picked out, it’s time to start making your way to your approach path. Remember your goal and be sure to always work towards it. It does you no good to explore far and wide if you don’t manage to land where you intended.
As the fall progresses, you’ll begin to observe details of the terrain, see the individual buildings in the city, and the animals that inhabit the trees of your forests. Eventually, the everyday lives of those who live in your milieu will become clear and show you the shape of your cultures. However, without the broad perspective those details will have no context.

If you managed to aim well and start your jump close by, take the luxury of a few flourishes and fun. Create poetry, song, and folklore. Write languages no one ever did or ever will speak. Create histories so detailed that they breathe life into your setting. However, never forget the simple truth that nothing can stop your inevitable meeting with the ground.

Some writers lavish extensive, even obsessive, attention on their world building before starting a project. While this often results in worlds of stunning realism, depth and scope, it isn’t necessary. If you enjoy the world building aspect more than the actual writing of the novel, I’d encourage you to go for it. Take your time and enjoy yourself. But remember one caveat: novels sell, not story bibles.


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