Some writers spend months inventing hundreds of years worth of history for their worlds before they set pen to paper. I don't (okay, can't) work this way. World-building is something that I layer into my story, adding details and building up through successive drafts.
Here is an example of an early draft of a scene from chapter one of Gate to Kandrith:
The uncobbled side street she was running down was almost pitch-black with only the moonlight gleam of puddles to guide her. Her slippered foot slid and the skirts of her gown trailed in muck, becoming sodden and chilly. They clung to her legs, slowing her progress.
She started to edge backwards, farther away from Claude and his servants. A sanguon ran up holding a lamp, panting. "Here, milord."
"Don't wave it in my face," Claude said irritably. "Go look for her."
How many others were there in the dark, searching for her? Sara struggled to remember how many had ridden with the coach. The driver, Claude's bodyservant and one or two guards.
The lamp was easy enough to avoid. Sara backed steadily away from the splash of yellow light and listened hard. Another curse from Claude as he stepped in something unpleasant and over there a small splash, someone moving through a puddle.I liked the scene, but felt the setting was too generic. It could have been any muddy alley in any fantasy city or even a historical novel. I wanted to show that my world was different and new and interesting. More subtly, I wanted to show that my main character grew up in a different culture and has been shaped by her beliefs.
Sara ran, guided only by the moonlight gleam of puddles. The skirts of her gown trailed in muck. The sodden material clung to her legs.
Sara tried to speed up, but her foot slipped in the mud. She found herself slowing, her drugged body unwilling to run any farther. The jazoria inside her whispered to stop, wait, let herself be caught. Let Claude take her. Anything to make the horrible, clawing need go away.
No. She would not give in.
Sara looked around, trying to get her bearings in the dark. Which way lay safety? She moved farther away from Claude and stumbled upon a raised path.
"Lady, it isn't safe, not here." Claude's slave, Gelban, spoke this time. "Do you know whose temple you're at?"
Temple? Most temples were scrubbed free of mud by diligent dedicants. Only one--
"I don't want to say His name, Lady," Gelban said.
Vez, God of Malice. She'd entered His temple. Sara's heart jumped as her memory supplied an image of temple courtyard full of black mud with Vez's statuary facial features rising up out of them. She must be walking on the obscenely long, lolling tongue, about to pass through Vez's mouth into the courtyard. Although Vez's assassin-priests had been outlawed over one hundred years ago and his worshippers driven into hiding, no one had dared pull down the God of Malice's temple.
"You don't know who might be out here in the dark," Gelban said. "Please, come back to the carriage."
Sara tried to think. Was Gelban right? The dark seemed suddenly malevolent. All types of scum were rumoured to come out at night to search the mud for the gold coins thrown by those buying a curse. She could end up with her throat slit or sold into slavery. In comparison, the early wedding night Claude wanted was nothing.
"Where is the little twotch? We've lost her." Claude swore with surprising viciousness.
Her determination to escape Claude hardened. Ducking her head to avoid the sharp statuary teeth, Sara entered the mouth and the Temple of Vez.
Inside, her foot came down in ankle-deep muck. The mud in the courtyard was said to be studded with sharpened stakes. Vez only wanted worshippers who hated enough to be careless of losing a little blood. And if they died later... the God of Malice played no favourites.
Not only is the second version considerably more creepy, but changing the setting from an anonymous alley to the Temple of Vez gave me a chance to salt little chunks of world-building into the action like diced potato in a stew. If you try to shove a whole potato’s worth of information or backstory down your reader’s throat in one lump, they may choke on it.
Similarly, the world-building needs to be integrated into the scene: my character has a reason to be thinking about something that everyone in her world grew up knowing. Nor is the information included here a mere footnote: Vez is the force behind my villain and important to the story. Going off on a tangent about history or architecture is as off-putting as adding sugar to your stew.
What are your favourite fantasy worlds?