Worldbuilding is a huge part of fantasy writing. For some – like Tolkein – the story comes about as something to showcase the world that has been built. But for those of us just starting out, it can be daunting to think you have to create an in-depth world for your readers from scratch.
Of course, you don’t have to start from scratch. There are myriad cultures from Earth’s history you can use to inspire your world. Research therefore can form a good starting point, a foundation. Don’t necessarily go for the obvious cultures – medieval western Europe, the Romans, the Aztecs and so on. Pick a time in the last 6000 years, a place anywhere in the world, and see what you can find out about the culture that existed in that time and place. You might be surprised – and inspired. Ptolemaic Egypt, Bronze Age northern Scotland, post colonial Mexico, the height of Great Zimbabwe or China at the time when the Silk Road first opened trade routes with the Roman Empire could all hold gems of information that help you to create an interesting, varied world to set your stories in.
So the first step is research. See what you can find and gather the bits you want to use. Then sort through them and pick out the bits that can work together and the bits that can’t, and start to use them to build up the cultures you need.
But what do you need? How much information do you require to create a world where your story can happen? Do you need a detailed map describing every turn in the road, every hill and stream, between the hero’s village and the king’s palace? Do you need to know what commodities your main character’s nation imports and from which locations? Do you need to know the details of the rituals used to worship the minor god Thuliwizbang? That depends on context.
If your main character travels for a while with a trading convoy on its way to the neighbouring country, it might be a good idea to know what sorts of things are being traded, and thus what the main country produces and what the neighbour requires. What is being transported might determine important facets – like how fast it travels, whether certain routes are out due to terrain unsuitable for whatever is being carried, and how many guards might be expected for security of the convoy.
If your main character is the daughter of the country’s Minister for Trade and is expected to succeed her father in that role, you might want to know somewhat more about the nation’s economy, including what proportions of which goods are traded with which allies and neutral parties, and how they prevent enemies, pirates, bandits and others from stealing goods in transit.
Conversely, if the whole story occurs in one small town over the course of a single night, economy might not even need to be brushed upon.
This is where worldbuilding and story creation go hand in hand. If you’re worldbuilding for the sake of worldbuilding then you can go into as much or as little detail as you want, but if you’re creating a world for a story to take place in, allow the story to dictate aspects of the world. Let’s say your character is suspected of treason and knows the only safe place he can flee too is the island nation of Flurblebug, the only country where they wouldn’t care if he tried to kill the Queen of Hoojiwotsit. But you don’t want him to find the journey easy – he has to find so much difficulty in leaving Hoojiwatsit’s shores that he goes begging for help from another character, who will later be invaluable to him in clearing his name, patching things up with the Queen and having a happy ever after.
You know what you want from the story, and thus what you need from the world: there must be minimal, if any, communication and trade between Hoojiwatsit and Flurblebug. To do this, you could create an ancient feud between the ruling families of the two, or you might decide that the seas between them are too dangerous to travel, either due to difficult currents or because pirates inhabit a small island directly between the two. Alternatively, maybe Flurblebug produces exactly what it needs and has no need to either import or export goods. Or perhaps an ancient prophecy warns Flurblebugians never to leave their island because the first to set foot on the land of another will create a war which will destroy their civilisation.
So you now have plenty of options of the obstacle for your protagonist in his goal to reach Flurblebug. From here you can see what fits best with the rest of the story or what fits best with the world as you’ve created it so far.
Once you understand what the story requires and how you want to mesh worldbuilding and storybuilding processes, worldbuilding becomes easier. It becomes a process of seeing what you need and what you want, researching Earth parallels and creating elements as required.
By the time you’ve finished your first draft you’ll have a world to go along with it. It might be a bit patchwork, with some elements glossed over and others in stark detail, but that’s fine; like your story, the world is in its first draft. You can fix it in the edits and rewrites.