So, I tend to spend far too much time and energy developing the settings for my stories. How do I know I'm spending too much time on this aspect of storytelling?
First, I spend more time writing about the setting than I do writing the stories set in the background that I am developing. While I can certainly see that happening at the beginning of a very lengthy project, at some point the balance has to tip away from setting toward the storytelling. Otherwise I'll just become a very proficient setting writer.
Second, I keep tweaking and modifying my setting in significant ways over time. For my Illyria fantasy setting, I've gone back and forth on several key issues, such as how magic works and the basic cosmology, over the past two or three years. I'm coming to believe rather strongly that the only way to end this constant tinkering and commit to a set of choices is to write some stories that are locked into a particular group of characteristics about things like politics, religion, magic, social structure, and so forth. Otherwise I'll just be spinning a big wheel of imagination forever, changing because I can't sit stil mentally.
Third, I end up sweating out details about aspects of the setting that I have no plans to include in my stories. Now, to a certain degree I think this is acceptable, because having a rich background in mind lends some confidence and depth to the storytelling. And if I had clear plans on how to some of these elements in the future, then they would be worth figuring out in the beginning. Might as well act as though I'm creating something that will be an ongoing success. But going too in-depth can certainly get excessive.
Why do I have this setting fetish? Thinking it over, I point to two major contributing factors: roleplaying games and my graduate studies in history.
The Game Was the Thing
Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s I played a lot of roleplaying games. Not that much of the biggest kid on the block, Dungeons and Dragons, but a lot of superhero games, some science fiction, and other stuff. Moreover, I was the person in charge of running most of the superhero games. This means that I created the basic plots, the characters who would oppose the players, and fleshed out--you guessed it--the setting.
When roleplaying, I found rather quickly that spending too much time creating a plot was a waste of time, because players are so unpredictable and mischevious that they will destroy a carefully crafted plot with ease. Instead it is better to paint in broad strokes, emphasize setting and flavor, and always have challenges in mind that are tailored to the abilities of the player characters, so the players all get a chance to shine at something they are good at and enjoy. Running a roleplaying game is good storytelling experience, but it is very different from writing a novel or even a short story due to the collaborative nature.
With roleplaying games, you want a fairly broad and detailed setting to give the players a large canvas to explore. You can't confine your worldbuilding to a small corner of the setting unless you are sure you can keep the players contained there, which is easier said than done. Particularly at the teenage/early twenties age during which I was gaming.
And roleplaying game BOOKS are for the most part sets of rules bolted to detailed settings. You read enough of those books and it seeps into your idea of how you should go about constructing a fantasy or science fiction world. But it takes a lot of work to produce something like. I daresay writing a big RPG setting is as much work for one person as writing a typical mainstream novel--which is one reason why a lot of these settings are created as collaborative efforts by a small number of designers the way video games are.
About the time that I stopped playing roleplaying games very often, I quit my tech writing job and went to graduate school in history. When I was in school, the instructors I gravitated toward, including my master's thesis advisors, emphasized history as a means of uncovering the lives and stories of the people that society tended to overlook. The idea was to enrich our experience of history by looking at all its many different threads.
This is a very alluring idea and can lead to some very fascinating histories of popular culture, labor, minority ethnic groups, women, the working class in general, and so forth. All sorts of details and subcultures and common experiences can be uncovered.
The problem that inevitably arises with these histories comes when one tries to weave them all together into a coherent narrative. Real life is more complex and in many ways less satisfying than a good story. Sticking to certain topics can result in an effective presentation of the known facts with a style that evokes its drama and purpose. Throwing all those topics into a blender can create a mashed and hard-to-follow tale.
When I create settings, my historical background sometimes comes in handy, helping me think of inspirational events and personalities or aiding me in looking at a situation from a hopefully fresh perspective. However, that same background also feeds into my tendency to think through aspects of the setting that are not critical to the story to be told.
So I think I can trace my troubles with setting to these influences during a memorable and interesting period of my life.