My all time favorite world building tool has to be the humble wiki. What other tool lets you spill out ideas, link them to other ideas, edit at will, track changes, keep all your world building notes online, easily accessible from everywhere, and is, best of all, free, simple, and easy to use? (Answer: Nothing)
My favorite at the moment is dokuwiki (linked in the side bar to your left), which I like because it is clean, simple, and PHP based with no database so I can keep it on my cheap hosting plan. Still, dokuwiki is just one of hundreds of free wiki programs out there, and there’s all kinds of awesome, fun things you can do with them.
When I start a world building wiki for a new novel I generally begin with the front page, carving my proto-novel up into neatly labeled divisions: themes, characters, settings, plot, magic systems, whatever I need. Then I just go down the list, clicking on each division to add a list of articles for that area, character names, for instance, or a list of places, anything I want to get to fast. Once I’ve listed everything, I go in and start filling in the blanks. For example, under my characters heading I now have a list of characters. I click on the character name to make a link, go in and start writing. I don’t worry about anything else right then except that character, what they look like, what they want, what their role in the story is, cool scenes where they appear, etc. As I go, I toss in links for important words (other character names, important places, themes, anything that looks good). Then, when I feel like I’ve got a good bit down about the character, I start filling in the new links. For example, if I mention that character A is the son of characters H and G, I’ll click on those new character names and start filling in their stories. This creates a whole new scattering of links, and so I click on THOSE and start filling THEM in, and organically, magically, the world of the story beings to emerge.
Because everything in a wiki is based on relationships, world building in a wiki is also a fantastic way to see where your world is thin. For example, when one of my main characters has a 2000 word write up and tons of links to other characters, places, and plot elements, but my other main character has two paragraphs and no links, it’s pretty obvious where I need to a spend some brain time. But even when everything’s been fleshed out as much as you can stand and it’s time to actually tell the story, the wiki continues to be insanely useful. Once I start writing, I refer to my wikied notes constantly to make sure I’m not forgetting things (or getting things wrong). This in itself is not unique, notes of any kind are made to be looked at, but the real gem of it is when things change.
Say I’m writing along and suddenly, one of the characters does something he’s not supposed to, something that changes the story. Even with the best planning (sometimes because of the best planning) this happens all the freaking time. Now you’ve got a new story with a new twist, and things have to change to survive. Back when I used to world build on paper, this generally meant I was screwed. I’d either have to go back and rewrite things (boring, time-consuming, by this point I want to WRITE, not world build) or just wing it and let my notes become outdated. Of course, if you don’t update your notes to incorporate changes, they become useless by the time you REALLY need them, which is when you have to tie everything back together at the novel’s end. One minute you’re right on track, writing away, then something changes and the next thing you know you’re winging through uncharted plot jungle on a few napkin notes and a prayer. This, to state the obvious, is not a comfortable way to work, and often leads to fumbling the ball, dropping the ball, or losing the ball entirely.
But a wiki saves me from ending panic, because with a wiki I can change my world notes on the fly as the writing changes the story. And not only do you make changes to the notes on the specific incident (e.g., a character does something that changes him from ally to enemy, so you have to go in and revise his part in later plot sections), but the nature of the wiki itself forces you to consider everything that links to the bit that’s different, spreading the changes throughout the work and making the whole world building web stronger.
Because my whole note system can change organically, flowing with the story instead of remaining stationary, fundamental changes become more manageable and your notes stay relevant and, most importantly, correct. What that mean in reality is that by the time I reach the end of the book I’m standing solid on a battle-tested mountain in interlinked, indexed ideas that have been with me through the whole process, and not on a napkin. And, trust me, it’s a much better place to be.