Arianne Lewin, an (actively acquiring!) executive editor at Putnam, is a fan of fantasy that has solid, grounded world-building. But that's easier said than done, so she has some tips for writers — of fantasy, sci-fi or even contemporary! — that will help you dig in.
Let's start with the basics: worldbuilding? What is it?
"It usually refers to books that are sci-fi or fantasy because it covers everything in a unique world you've created," Lewin says. "Anchor your story in a particular time and place, something readers need to believe in. You'll think about economy, culture, geography, magic and science -- even what kind of underwear people wear."
Essentially, it's knowing the everything about the world your characters inhabit, from infrastructure on out, but also realizing how that world affects the story and characters.
Once the world-building work is done, many writers are eager to show it off. But "we don't need each of those elements to be present on the pages," Lewin notes. "You're not writing an encyclopedia about that world. You want to feel authentic and believable, creating a world people want to stay in, without drowning them in details."
Instead, focus on sprinkling in details as needed in an organic, unobtrusive manner. To see how, Lewin suggests reading books that are masterful in their worldbuilding, noting world details as you spot them.
The best worldbuilding is character-driven. "Let it unravel through that protagonist," Lewin says, citing Franny Billingsley's Chime as an example. "You see what the main character is seeing, doing and thinking, and that informs you about the world. "All the details are filtered through her mind, the language she uses, what she sees and feels, and that builds the world for us."
Action, character and thought reveal the world without info dumps or exposition. "When you don't tell your readers too much right away, letting them unravel the details, it shows you respect them," Lewin says. "It really demonstrates authority — if you believe something and show me that it's happening, I will absolutely have to believe it. Readers stay stuck on what they see."
In her second example, Nightfall, "the world drives the story, not the other way around," Lewin says. "The world creates the conditions that makes the story happen. In this case, the authors knew the kind of story they wanted to tell, and created a world in which the world itself builds that tension and creates that plot."
Other reading recs for worldbuilding: the Legend series by Marie Lu and The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner.