We're back in the "school year," so I figure it's time to get the Wednesday writing posts back up and running. I post something on the craft, life, or business of writing every other Wednesday. For the next month or so (however long it runs), I'm going to be talking about world building. This came up at a few of the conventions I attended during the summer, and it's a subject near and dear to my heart, ever since I interviewed the professor who taught a course on "parageography" at the university for a radio show, and then ended up registering for his course.
The first thing to be aware of is that whenever you write fiction, you're worldbuilding, even if what you're writing is the "real" world and you're not creating a Narnia or Middle Earth. No matter how real the world of your story is, it exists in an alternate reality in which none of the people in the world are aware that they're in a story (unless you're doing something really crazy and experimental). With a real-world setting, you may not be making up the city, streets, and businesses, but you're still creating a fictional version of that real world when you choose what aspects of that world will make a difference in your story and when you choose how to depict them.
One thing that really stuck with me from that course was something the professor repeated often: you're creating a place where things can happen. He usually meant it in the sense that in the class we were building worlds, not writing stories (he didn't want us turning in our epic fantasy novel for our class project), but I think it's also true for writers creating worlds because what we want is a place where things -- interesting things, with enough conflict for a plot -- can happen. That's true no matter how mundane or fantastic your story world is. You need a world where things can change -- they may need to change because it's been static for too long, the world may be on the brink of change, or the world may have changed in the wrong way and needs a correction. The world may seem stable and peaceful, but you're going to need some cracks in it that can be exposed if you want your story to be interesting. The happy hobbits may have been living peacefully in the Shire, but there were dark things brewing around the edges that would eventually affect them. That cozy, peaceful small town will be revealed to be hiding a lot of secrets when someone is murdered.
That would probably be the first step in worldbuilding, to think about what could change or what needs to change in the world. Is this thing obvious, or are people not aware of the problem? Is the problem being deliberately hidden, or is everyone oblivious? No one in the small town may be aware that there was a potential killer in their midst -- even the killer might not have realized he had that capacity. Or the wizard may have been managing to hold the lurking evil at bay without informing the kingdom. Or the world could be an obvious dystopia. If there's nothing that could change or that needs to change, this isn't a very good place to set a story. You've probably already got that in mind if you've got a plot idea, so it's a good place to begin building a world for your story.