S.A. Partridge’s YA Worldbuilding Masterclass at Open Book 2015


S.A. Partridge, who writes contemporary YA invited Zimkhitha Mlanzeli and myself to join her in a YA Worldbuilding Masterclass and mini-workshop at Open Book Cape Town this year.

We looked at world-building from both the real-world position of contemporary and historical YA, where you are not “building” a world as such, but realistically incorporating a recognisable setting into your narrative, and from the aspect of fantasy world building, that is:  “from the ground up.” On many points we overlapped and agreed, despite our different approaches to genres.

I took some notes from the initial talky-talk section, so here’s my attempt at a write up.

S.A. Partridge started us off by tackling it from a research perspective, likening the world in which your characters exist as similar to the model town in the attic in Beetlejuice – how it’s a world in miniature that creates a place for your characters to move through.


She works mainly in modern real world Young Adult, so for her, she tries to start off with research, asking herself every conceivable question that sets the time and place and “storyspace” in her head.

Some questions she mentioned:

-where does the story take place?

-what era

-what season

-what’s the area like where MC lives ad what sort if technologies inform their “story life”

– what social media platforms do they use – Myspace is going to date a novel to a particular time

-how do they travel


-scenery, flora, fauna of place

-where do they hang out, what do they eat

-what events/holidays are part of the story – Sally said having these cultural activities in mind (a spring ball, Hallowe’en, etc) can provide a kind of goal for the narrative to work towards, building tension.

Think of all the things that build a convincing world for your character to move around in.

(here I added that different places can also be used as a kind of shorthand to evoke different emotions, and also, once lulling the reader, turn those assumptions on their head.)

Zimkhitha talked to us about how the sense are the most important thing for herm how she’ll close her eyes and try envisage every aspect of the scene – how clothes feel, what smells are on the air, the heat or cold, etc. She relates sensory perception as a way to connect to character – how the world builds the character. Surroundings affect them, can cause emotional reactions.

She talked about how characters need to be authentic to their settings. Using Mananberg as an example, she says if she reads a character from Manenberg, she wants to see them dressed in styles you’d find in Manenberg, wants to hear Manenberg in their phrasing and dialogue, their accent, their thoughts: “I want to them to walk like Manenberg, talk like Manenberg, dress like Manenberg.”

The conversation veered to research – Zimkhitha says, “don’t just make it up.” Use your own experience, be accurate in your representations of events and facts (frex, her understanding of South African judiciary system was too heavily influenced by American tv, and that scene had to be cut).

We talked about finding authentic voices for time-periods – Sally suggested going to local library – be amazed what you find – she found a ship’s log detailing events from a time period she was writing in for a short story, proved invaluable, added authenticity to story, plus gave her more ideas. Zimkhitha said to go to the places where your novel is set, make notes – see if you can spend a day in a court room, for example, ask people for feedback about authenticity.

I suggested memoirs and novels set in that time period as a way of getting voice, many of which can be downloaded free from Project Gutenberg. When it came to overviews for a particular culture or era (especially for fantasy writers who don’t want to slavishly copy history), I suggested readers get books from the kid’s non-fiction section of the library, as they give a good, simple bird’s eye view, and from there you can look at what areas you want to research more intensively. A way to really get a handle on a character voice (esp in contemporary) was to transcribe dialogue from different age groups and social types.

We all agreed that simply relying on a simple wiki search wasn’t going to cut it (except for minor details, obviously.)

I spoke a bit about how if STORY is a tree, then detailed, obsessive worldbuilding is the root system. the reader doesn’t get to see it, but it informs everything that happens in the narrative. It provides an anchor for events and strength to developing story. I call this the MACRO part of worldbuilding – research, and foundations, the myths and histories of your world, the Geopolitics, the religions, the wars, the shape of the world. All this under the surface detail sends waves through your story.


MICRO worldbuilding to me is the sensory detail that evokes a sense of place or time, that settles the reader firmly within your world. No MICRO leaves your character operating in an empty room, too much can end up purple, and a slog for readers.

I mentioned that for keeping track of many worldbuilding details (especially over a series of books), i keep all my information in Zim Wiki, which I use to cross-reference details, and build world connections.

One of the things I talked about was the four nodes of worldbuildng as I see them but this is getting long, so I’ll talk about them in anther post.

related post