This is from the Worldbuilding 101 panel at MadCon in 2010. Panelists included Patrick Rothfuss, Gene Wolfe, Allen Steele and Nicholas Ozment Notes compiled by Jenna Reynolds (These are not meant to be direct quotes.)
When you are building a world (worldbuilding) for your stories, what is your process? What do you start with?
Gene Wolfe: I start with what I want the world, the society to be from the story’s standpoint. What kind of society will give him what he wants in the story? What are the pressures on the people in the society? All societies are a response to some kind of pressure. Environment, etc. What kind of society will give him what he needs to tell the story he wants to tell. What sort of environment will give him, for example, the kind of society where scientists run things?
Patrick Rothfuss: (Does a lot of worldbuilding. Has one world, so far, for the books he’s writing.) Tolkien is one of the first big worldbuilders. Unfortunately, a lot of people copy the wrong thing from Tolkien. Tolkien created languages and histories and societies. He created the languages first, which he had a great love for. You don’t have to emulate Tolkien. Authors can’t create all the aspects of a world in a story. You have to decide where your interest and love lies and work from there. (Economy is interesting to Rothfus; so this is important in his world.) Pick something that’s fun for you.
Nicholas Ozment: Tolkien can be intimidating. You have to put it in the context that Tolkien was an amateur writing. Not many people have the kind of time to put into worldbuilding as Tolkien did.
Allen Steele: (Says he comes at worldbuilding from a hard science fiction, because of this, he has to be a bit more detailed with his worldbuilding. He writes about something that doesn’t exist, but could possibly exist and avoided worldbuilding initially. [At one time] wrote primarily in the Terran solar system so the research was easy for him. Not until he wrote Coyote did he go into worldbuilding extensively. In his novel Hex, he’s writing about a Dyson sphere. In both of these cases, he started from the macro and worked his way down to the micro. He found the location, a star where a habitable world would be likely and drew on discoveries of exo-planets.) Don’t do what else has been done when worldbuilding. There are two types of worlds I see often– exotic but impossible worlds, sand planets, ice planets. Or worlds that have one or two big continents, which lend themselves to homogeneous environments. Look at environments on earth for inspiration.
Patrick Rothfuss: Make your world substantive and one that builds character and plot complications. A successfully built world can become a silent character.
Gene Wolfe: I object violently to the idea that a planet can not have one huge continent. (This in response to Steele saying such a world wasn’t realistic. Wolfe pointed out that earth had such a makeup for a long time and there was life on it at that time.)
Gene Wolfe: (Back to advice on worldbuilding in general) Don’t do all the research before writing the story. Write the story and then decide what research you need to do to fit the story.
Allen Steele: (90% of his research is done before he sets pen to paper. 10% is done while he’s writing. The reason he does this is because you can run into the problem of trying to hammer a square peg into a round hole.) Do the research to support the premise of your story.
Gene Wolfe: No matter how much research you do prior to the story, you will need to research even more during the writing of the story. It’s a chicken or the egg process. Only tell the reader what he needs to know to understand the story and only when he needs to know it.
Patrick Rothfuss: Avoid the info dump as much as possible. Let the story progress and if you mention something the reader doesn’t know, just keep going. Make the worldbuilding information a payoff for the reader. It takes a lot of time to do this. Also, writers have to have a delicate touch when doing this. (He adds that with worldbuilding there is a spectrum between hard and soft, whether fantasy or science fiction, not necessarily simply between fantasy and science fiction.)