Worldbuilding – by Steve Umstead

Author Steve Umstead

I’ve been asked several times what the most fun part of being an author is. Is it the vast riches? The adoring fans? The private jets? The high class parties?

Well, no. But if you see any of those, please steer them my way.

After thinking about it, I realized the most fun part of being an author is being able to create worlds. In my case, writing in the science fiction genre, I believe it’s even more fun, as I get to play with today’s technologies and settings, and naturally extrapolate them into the future.

I’ve heard many comments about “writing science fiction or fantasy is easy – you get to make everything up.” That is true to some extent (the made up part, NOT the easy part); however, when it comes to science fiction, and more specifically the subgenre I tend to write in (near-future science fiction), there are a lot of rules to follow. It is, after all, a very scientific world to write in. A lot can be made up (faster than light travel, cloning, brain implants, laser rifles, etc.) but it needs to remain realistic, or the author runs the risk of losing the educated reader.

Here are a two examples of world building I’ve used, and my attempts to stay true to the genre and science while expanding the imagination:


I’ll start with the most fun world building – literally building a world. In two of the three stories in my trilogy, I was able to create a planet from scratch…one that didn’t exist except in my imagination. It was an absolute blast – but I had to incorporate real science. Science such as size of the planet (which combined with its mass gives the gravity level), its distance from the sun, orbital period, temperature, atmosphere, potential native life, and more all must factor into the creation. I also had to research locations based on actual stars and their distance from Earth, to place it in a relatively known location. I could have made it up, but I chose to stick with the near-future setting.

Putting life on the planet, specifically Eden in Gabriel’s Return (book 2), was just as enjoyable, and just as restrictive. Life, at least as we know it, has certain needs and requirements, so I took plants and animals we currently have…and made them more dangerous. I stayed within known science (for the most part!) but still tried to create a completely alien world.

The bulk of the action in my third book takes place on Mars, a very much known setting, so locations according to probe maps, names of areas, where dust storms originate and how long they last, the striations in some of the valleys theoretically caused by ancient water flow, the dormant volcanoes and their lava tubes – all of that I had to delve into prior to writing to make sure it came across realistically.

Even with all of that, it was a heck of a lot of fun.


Another truly fun part of world building – I get to make up names. Not completely made up, but enough so that it became my world and still stayed within traditional, accepted nomenclature. In what way?

Starships: Most science fiction postulates that spaceships belonging to the military will be Navy ships (I agree with this as opposed to the Air Force theory). The reason for that is that they are transporting/carrying troops and/or fighters, which is what today’s Navy does. So ships will be named according to naval tradition – meaning I needed to research how ships are named today and hundreds of years ago.

An example from my current WIP, which takes place in the same universe as my trilogy, is a battlecruiser. US Navy conventions call for that type of ship to be named after a famous battle or ship – so I chose the Coral Sea, the site of a famous WWII battle. For a fast frigate I needed to create, I chose the Jesse LeRoy Brown – frigates and destroyers are named after US naval heroes, and Brown was the first African-American naval aviator in the United States Navy, and the first naval officer killed in the Korean War.

Cities: Specifically for me, on Mars. Think about how cities are named here. After presidents (Lincoln, Washington), after geographic features (Salt Lake City, Montreal), after original inhabitants (Sioux City, Spokane), then take those to a future setting. Cities on Mars become Arsia Mons (named after the mountain), Bradbury (named after a famous Mars author), and so on.

People: Face it – Michael, Joseph, Mary, and John are darned popular names, and have been since Biblical times. Chances are they’ll last another few hundred years. But think about names you see today, traditional names with a twist. Mychal, Myke, Micheal, Josyph, Jo, Merri, Mari, Jon, Jonn. Another fun part of world building.

There is so much more to building a realistic science fiction world (technologies, communication, weapons, transportation) that in some cases, I have to simply skip over them in the story because it’s not truly important. However, that background has to be there, and it better be right. Can’t have a person take a one hour train ride on Mars at 300mph and get from Eos Chasma to Arsia Mons, a distance of over 3,000 miles – someone’s going to call me out on that!


Steve Umstead has been the owner of a Caribbean & Mexico travel company for the past ten years, but never forgot his lifelong dream of becoming an author. After a successful stab at National Novel Writing Month, he decided to pursue his dream more vigorously…but hasn’t given up the traveling. Learn more about Steve and his writing from his website. You can find all his books at his Amazon Author Page.  You can find him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.


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7 thoughts on “Worldbuilding – by Steve Umstead”

  1. I write fantasy so my world also comes from my imagination. But you are right. It's not easy. No matter that it is not 'real' it must still be believable. I also make up names, but am aware that they must not be impossible to pronounce or remember. Our readers need to be able to enjoy our work without doing mental gymnastics. Good post.

  2. Thanks Stephen for the opportunity to post – it was actually quite fun to write and put on 'paper' what I've always thought about in the back of my mind!


  3. Great blog! I (as a dare) from another author, started writing sci-fi. Never done it before. So, in the first book, I just made up some cool (and plausible) stuff. Well, one book turned into two, then three, and now four. To maintain consistency, I've had to create an entire universe- wow, that was a lot of work! Charting planets, alien species, who's at war with who, the whole works. I never dreamed it would get this out of hand, but I've had a great time doing it. Yes, details are necessary.

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