I'm doing a bit of world-building at the moment for another of my side-WIPs. It's a dark fantasy set in a massive tower city. There's a lot to do because it's a very unusual setting, a world with no sun. I want to make sure the world feels like it could be real and the people in it live their lives as people who have never known light greater than torches and firelight.
All this work got me thinking about the importance of world-building, not just for very unusual fantasy settings, but even for everyday settings. I like to think of the writer's job as being a puppet master, with a great big curtain between the audience and his collection of puppets and props. The audience may never see everything that's behind that curtain, but the writer simply must have a complete selection back there, and be familiar enough with every prop and tool to be able to put any one of them to use at a moment's notice. I think most readers can tell when an author has had to scramble to find an explanation for certain unexpected events, or pull out a new character they weren't prepared to use.
Even if you're writing in a modern day setting with no monsters, sci-fi or magic, it's so important to make sure you know the ins and outs of the place your characters inhabit. Is the hero's work next to a dry cleaner or a pizzeria? How often does it rain? What's the daily commute like? These small, simple details can help you add life to your story, giving you background and ways to interact with the world beyond pursuing the over-arcing plot.
I like to plan out bits and pieces like that before I start writing. If I'm using a real city I pick out the real-world locations I want to include and decide how they fit in. I come up with the fictional places and people who add to the setting. I like to play around with real places and give them my own twist. It frees me up to do things with the setting I couldn't do if I was restricting myself solely to how a place exists in reality. When creating a fictitious setting I tend to start with a more overall, macro-management approach. I work out the things most important to my protagonist first. In Nightfall, for example, I created the town of Little Falls, and started out with things like developing the local school and popular places for kids to go driving up in the hills and woods near the town.
I won't have the chance or even the need to reveal everything I've come up with, but it's comforting to know the information is there. It's like a wonderful security blanket, knowing it's there should I need it.
What about you? Do you enjoy world-building? Have you ever experienced a jarring moment in a movie, tv show or book where you just get the feeling the author needed to come up with something quickly to get through a scene?