Old-school world-building

This is Part 2 in the series, Guide to World-building.

An old friend calls me out on Twitter after my first article in the series. His prudent question makes me wonder if I could world-build old-school on paper alone.


Old-school world-building

I hadn't planned on writing this as part of my world-building series, but after posting the first article on Twitter, an old friend asked a prudent question and it prompted an interesting trip down memory lane.

Mate, here they are still

Old school world-building
Old school world-building

I've known Nathan since high school, and so he was there in my formative years as a fantasy writer. I remember him watching with interest and encouragement when I used to write stories by hand on loose-leaf paper and did most of my world building the same way. There are times when I miss this free-form expression, but nostalgia is a dangerous trap!

I moved to writing stories on computer around 1996, but continued to draw maps and take notes on paper for years after. I stopped drawing maps by hand when I got my first Wacom tablet and learnt Photoshop (circa 2003). Even so, these were merely working maps, not intended for production. When I produced my first edition of Weaver of Dreams, back in late 2004, the map was hand drawn by my brother Nic and then scanned by me into PhotoShop.

It still looks incredible.

Map for the original edition of Weaver of Dreams
Map for the original edition of Weaver of Dreams

My transition to digital note-taking took a longer. My first laptop was heavy and its battery life poor, making it impractical to use on the go compared to the convenience of a paper notebook. That changed when I got my first Palm Pilot and then my first ultraportable laptop, an IBM ThinkPad X21.

To me, there's no comparison. Digital is much more efficient and practical. I have terrible handwriting and handwritten notes were seldom used once written down and soon forgotten.

Even though this early work is awful, amateurish and illegible, I can't bring myself to destroy it.

How to approach paper world building

Oddly enough, much the same as I do now.

Back when I was developing the app back in 2014, I started with the concept of a structured directory containing all my world-building elements. This is analogous to way I used to do it as a kid, before I got distracted by things like wikis and databases.

Today, I'd adopt the same approach and use a ring binder containing a simple schema of tabs and files. Write everything out by hand, or create an print off templates to keep things consistent.

The main differences really come down to working preferences. Are you a desk-bound scholar, a road warrior or are do you want something a little more sophisticated?

Time to visit to the office supplies shop! Virtual or physical, there's plenty of places to get your fill of stationary porn. And, I discover, there's still a huge subculture out there that loves quality paper, accessories and nice writing pens.

The desk-bound world crafting scholar

This is how I imagine Professor Tolkien did it, pouring over meticulously filed papers (handwritten or pecked out on a typewriter), pipe wedged between his teeth as he indulged in his life-long passion of subcreation.

Tolkien in his study
Tolkien in his study

Where space and weight is no issue, the world-builder is free to retreat in peace and quiet into an old-world sanctuary. Imagine, a study complete with floor-to-ceiling bookcases, cork boards for maps and index cards, and dozens of folders filled with lovingly crafted notes.

Using big, ring-bound folders it's trivial to create a functional and very flexible repository for your world-building needs. Use paper tabs for sections like characters, locations and so on. Plastic pockets can store index cards. It you're particularly productive and your scope epic, you might want to throw in a filing cabinet or two.

For map drawing and other illustrations, bigger is better. Think an A3 or A2 (ANSI B or C) sketch pad propped up on an elevated surface like a drafting table. A quick search of Ebay shows you can pick up a drafting table for less that $200. Digitise your artwork quickly with a camera or take it to your local print shop for professional scanning.

Alas, I have three children and my study is ear-marked for my daughter's bedroom when she moves out of ours in another 12-18 months.

The road builder

Most of us occupy this space. Unless you work full time on your writing (and you have a dedicated space), you'll like have to lug you material around with you for work and other commitments that pull you from your desk.

Anyone remember Filofax? These mini organisational marvels were the paper PDAs of the 80s and 90s. They are still a think apparently and are ideal for portable content organisation.

A Filofax is essentially a small-sized version of your typical A4 (or US Letter) ring-bound folder. Most are closed with a zip or clasp, keeping things safe within. Accessories galore! In addition to the classic organisation fills, you can get tabs and dividers, lined paper, plain paper, graph paper, hole punches, rulers and even calculators.

I took one with me when my wife and I travelled across North America and I still fondly remember how versatile and useful it was not only for writing and planning but also storing all the bits of crap you collect when you travel. I even made up my own templates for travel purposes, but obviously there's nothing to stop you creating world-building analogues for creating characters or locations.

My iPad mini has resoundingly replaced my need for such a device thanks to the relentless march of convergence and cloud-based storage providers. You could equally make the argument for using a large-form factor smartphone, but I still personally prefer the size of the iPhone 5/5s/SE.

If you're Hemingway or Indiana Jones

For those who don't want the weight and complexity of a Filofax, there's a lot to be said for using a Moleskine notebook and a nice pen. Hemingway loved them and Indiana Jones had cause to use something similar when translating hieroglyphs in Raiders of the Lost Ark. They scream class and sophistication, albeit with mass-market, made in China availability, which in fairness, makes them easy to find and relatively cheap.

Grab a notebook to suit your preferences, add some tabs or dividers and you're set. I used Moleskines late in my notetaking years, along with a Lamy gel pen -- a considerable upgrade over the Spirax1 notebooks I started out using. It was a nice combination -- almost too nice to dirty those soft, yellow pages with my terrible handwriting.

A hybrid approach?

Speaking of Moleskine, not to be left out entirely of the digital age, they have a neat hybrid approach to notetaking in the post-PC digital age. Their Smart Writing Set combines a digital pen with their slick-as-sex notebooks.

Smart Writing Set by Moleskine
Smart Writing Set by Moleskine

Another alternative is by Wacom, makers of the popular line of graphics tablets for artists. The Wacom Bamboo Slate is a smart notebook that allows you to write on paper and then promptly transfers your note to its companion smartphone app.

Wacom Bamboo Slate
Wacom Bamboo Slate

One benefit of these types of devices is they are able to convert handwriting to digital text, making it easy to search for and retrieve a note. The technology, optical character recognition, can be hit and miss and generally works much better if your writing is neat. Assuming it works it does negate the greatest weakness of writing notes by hand.

So could I do it today?

No, I personally couldn't. Appealing as it is sometimes, I have several constraints that make it impractical for me. Firstly my poor handwriting is not getting better. Secondly, is the convenience of digital for storage, search, retrieval and backup. I've always got a digital device with me -- even when I go running. Thirdly, and perhaps most telling, I've already tried and failed -- or I'm generous, I moved on. The reasons why I gave up paper even more relevant today than they were when I did so as an early adopter of the PDA.

I will note that I do find the hybrid approach interesting. Yet, as nice as these devices appear to be2, they ain't exactly cheap. If I'm laying out that kind of coin, I'd probably prefer to use an iPad and the Apple Pencil, which even Apple's latest budget friendly iPad now supports.

So in conclusion, I've enjoyed this trip down memory lane and the thought experiment it inspired. If nothing else, it's helped get my own requirements straight as I start thinking about my forthcoming tutorials in the series.

Oh, and a big shout-out to Nathan for calling me out, thanks mate!


  1. This iconic Aussie brand pretty much cornered the education market when I was a kid. 

  2. I haven't personally tried them and this is not an endorsement! 

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