The way you organize your worldbuilding information is just as important as the worldbuilding itself. If you're figuring all these things out, you'll have to write it down somehow. This is entirely up to you. You might want a notebook full of notes, maybe organized into sections like "landscape", "culture", "maps", etc. A binder will also work very well for this. This would allow you to print off pictures from the internet that remind you of your setting. I love doing this--it's so much fun to look at real-life mountains to get inspiration for my fictional mountain range. For those of you who prefer to type or to go paperless, you can always use computer folders to organize your worldbuilding notes. I posted in more detail about various methods of organizing any book-related information or notes you might have right here. It's good to keep all your notes in one place, with some form of organization. That way, if you need to look something up while writing, you only need to turn to your notebook/binder/whatever. It's like your own personal Wikipedia.
|Ah, Mordor, which I can include in this post because it's a fictional setting. Such a lovely vacation spot. Walk-ins not accepted.|
If you're wondering how you're possibly going to think of all this, you have no further to look than the world around you. Inspiration for your setting definitely can come from real-life places. I know you have internet access, so why not try some Google searches to find something to spur your imagination? Christopher Paolini based some of the terrain in his fictional world on the mountains of Montana. It's okay to use real places, and borrow aspects from real-life cultures, past or present. Just like how every plot or book idea inevitably is subconsciously inspired by the thousands of stories you've taken in over your lifetime, worldbuilding inspiration lies in the countless places you've been, seen, heard of, or read about.
And now that I've spent all that time telling you how to make an entire world and how to plan all these things, I'm going to tell you that you won't use it all. In fact, I'm begging you, please, for the love of all that is good and literary, please don't use all of your worldbuilding. Use aspects that are relevant to the story. Use enough to give us a sense of your world and an understanding of how it works. Use appropriate details to richen the story, help form a character, or establish a mood. But don't ever, ever say "Well, I spent all this time worldbuilding, so I might as well use every piece of information I came up with." If you do this, your novel won't be as much a story as it will be one giant infodump. And who likes to read infodump? Nobody.
The key to immersing your readers into your fictional world is not in dumping as much information as possible about it over their heads. The key, after you've established the "big stuff" of how your world works, is to add details. A few details here and there are far more effective than an entire chapter explaining the wedding customs of your fictional culture. Strategically placed details give the reader the sense that this world is just as complex as a real one without making them read page after page of boring infodump. Details clue in the reader's subconscious to the fact that this world has other details, below, the surface. They might never make the book, but if you know these details, chances are you know other details, and that lends to a setting that feels authentic. It's like an iceberg--you only see the top, but you know the rest is there, and that it's huge.
For some more worldbuilding advice, I like this article, 25 Things You Should Know About Worldbuilding. [insert obligatory language warning here] It gets a little weird in places, but it's good advice.
If you're sitting here thinking "Annie, ain't nobody got time for that", then I'd highly recommend not writing fantasy. Please. Just--don't.
Your brain might be going like this, thinking of all this worldbuilding:
I totally understand. But it's also fun, and worthwhile once you start actually writing your book. When you think about it, how awesome is worldbuilding? You're creating an entire world that's all your own. For now, it only exists in your mind and in your notes. If someone ever reads your book, though, suddenly it exists in their mind, and on and on for all your readers. How cool is that? You get to take your readers by the hand into your very own fictional world and guide them through a place they've never been before.
To sum it all up: If you're writing a book that's set in a fictional world, you need to plan and develop that world. Once you've done so, though, don't ever, ever use every single detail that you've come up with. Let readers know the big, important things, yes, and anything that's relevant, but also remember that it's like an iceberg. We see the small details on top, but we know the massive rest of the chunk of ice is still there. With worldbuilding, small details will give readers the sense that your world is fully developed and real.
How do you build settings for your books? What are some of your favorite fictional worlds?