WRITING KNOWHOW Worldbuilding in YA

Our Writing KnowHow series on worldbuilding continues with author P.M. Freestone taking us back in time into the world of YA science fiction and fantasy.

I've long been a history nerd. In primary school, I loved learning about ancient societies, and I went on to study history and archaeology at university. This gave me an appreciation of how a sense of history can enrich our fictional worlds (on Earth or elsewhere), and I’m a firm believer in drawing on the power of the past to lend your story credibility in its present.

Because YA fiction often deals with elements of identity, incorporating a sense of what’s gone before is fertile ground. We know from the first chapter of The Hunger Games that the segregation in Panem didn’t appear overnight, just as the myths and magic of Children of Blood and Bone have deep roots in time. This history informs the views and values of the heroines in these books, their sense of belonging or conflict with their environment and society, and their hopes or frustrations about their life prospects.

When I was writing Shadowscent, I knew I wanted the Empire of Aramtesh to have a similar sense of the past. The way the characters view the world, their beliefs, superstitions, class and economic situation is influenced by recent history (the civil unrest stirred by the neglect of the current Emperor’s incompetence) and deep history (the collective but fragmented memory of a terrible war centuries before).

You definitely don’t need a history degree to create story worlds with rich pasts. Start by asking yourself some questions on different timescales:
  • What happened in your world the day before your story begins?
  • A week before?
  • A year?
  • Decade?
  • Century?
  • Millennium

Now, how does this history influence your characters? Do they know or care much about their world’s past? Perhaps they have a favourite story from times gone by? Is there a historical figure or period they find fascinating? Or perhaps an event they dread or resent?

Not all of this will end up in your manuscript. But if you dig deep to explore your world’s history, you’ll give your reader the sense that there are many untold stories beyond your pages. And what better way to transport them to another world?

Header Image: DarkWorkX from Pixabay

P. M. Freestone writes YA SFF. Her debut novel, Shadowscent: The Darkest Bloom, was published earlier this year by Scholastic, with the sequel to follow in 2020. She lives in Edinburgh with her partner and rescue dog, and runs Pulse events for SCBWI Scotland.


Eleanor Pender is Knowhow Editor. If there's something you'd like to know how to do, send your suggestions to knowhow@britishscbwi.org

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