Before you read this, you need to read this. Then, possibly, this. You'll also be fairly lost when I reach my examples if you don't read this (which is still in a draft form, so don't consider it final!) For the rest of this post, focus on my story, and how we used our world and characters' histories to flesh out a world. If you don't want spoilers for the draft story, don't jump below.
Initially, I wanted to capture the same feeling as one of my favorite RPG series. At least, when it came to atmosphere. I wanted to stay away from the supernatural elements, a shift I'm not normally comfortable making. I like magic, gosh darn it.
"Lost technology" helped to promote an entire side story about Welch finding an armory, which pushed forward a plot about how they would power their new technology. In turn, that explains their conflict with Rose's tribe, which brings Ace and Rose to the little girl at the start of the story.
To ease the reader into this strange world, our main character in the early parts is an adventurous young girl. Her ignorance is an excuse to leak history. Much of it, especially the cultural and historical notes that Rose gives us a peek at, have nothing to do with the main plot. On the other side of the gap, the majority of the early narrative is describing the Baron's rise to power, while Morton and Dana's dad give us tidbits about the situation in the west.
Pre-writing details helped to not only propel the story, but after spitballing the setting for over a year now, I could imagine it. I know why they have robot horses and Big Dogs. I realized that mechanics are insanely valuable in the west, where specialized workers are more common due to the stronger (if a iron-fistedly ruled) economy. You have experts in the east, but jacks of all trade in the west, with the few true craft masters like Littleton. Unstated, but also true: settlements in the east are closer together. Useful history, but the readers don't need it.
Look at how differently Dana values her technology compared to the people in the east. Rodney is her friend; at first, it seems that way because she is just a little girl and it is a robot horse. But, when you look at it in this new light, this is more than just a robot horse. This machine enables their livelihood; repairing it beyond structural damage may even be impossible or costly. The climate controlled satchels are artifacts to the west; the Baron's men just have to fill the proper forms out to borrow them.
Why? His people have the economic stability to not worry about starving if they lock themselves away for weeks at a time trying to restore lost technology. Rennard is only able to survive because the Lyceum is something of a self-supporting ecosystem. He could retire to study, a rarity in the west. He made circuits to provide even lesser capabilities than the basic craftspeople of the Baron's citadel. Yet, as far as the west is concerned, he is the doctor. He knows he is a treasure trove of lost information, part of the reason he so readily teaches it to Dana.
Mort and Mr. Littleton's relationship with the sisters could easily spawn stories from how they met to their parting, very little of which is directly seen. Their past made it more real and natural to write their talk together. They casually slip in references the reader doesn't understand and feel like old friends, something I don't think I could have done without my pre-writing. The same is true of the Baron and his men.
Why is Lloyd one of the few men in the barony to become a better man? Blame his wife, an unintentional theme. She's not mentioned more than in passing. But, their relationship transformed him; I could easily put together a story with him as the moral center of the Baron's early group of anti-heroes. How the Baron fell pulled his lot together is hardly in there, but you know there is more to it than what you read. The history I have in my back pocket makes the world feel bigger than the snippet you see, which is what you need in fiction.
Don't under estimate the power of giving your fiction history. Analyze it. Apply it. With it, you can write with more confidence, make your characters more real and even bridge yourself to new stories.
I had a character web for each character. What is a character web? Put the character's name or most important identity at the center of a paper. From that, organically grow your character. Dana started as "Little girl," which we quickly added layers of detail. One detail was that there were not other kids her age, which helps explain her quick liking of Ben. Next time I make one, I'll post a picture. Also, naming the first couple Ambrose and Rose was a complete accident. I didn't realize until about page 30 or so that their names were just too cute (or awkward, your call) together, so I left it as is.