Written by Marie Brennan
I grew up in suburban Dallas, a land composed of sidewalks, houses, big box stores, lawns that shrivel up and die in the summer heat, and the occasional attempt at a tree. When it comes to describing nature, I’m starting from a bit of a disadvantage, because I basically only ever saw it while on vacation.
When I do try to visualize the natural environment of a story, like many other authors, I default to a generic European temperate image. There are trees; if any of them get named, they’re probably oaks. There are meadows and occasional rivers. Roads cross a landscape without too much in the way of topography. Farmers raise crops, probably wheat; don’t ask too much about the specifics. We rarely see tropical environments, or extensive plains, or coastal regions, or mountainous terrain—at least as anything more than a cameo (or where Those Other People come from). Deserts show up occasionally, but they’re often as bland and flavorless as the Euro-temperate lands: a few mentions of water being precious and people getting sunburned, but nothing about the real tactics and hazards of surviving out there. Weather tends to be unremarkable unless the author needs a dramatic thunderstorm or blizzard. Earthquakes only happen if they’re a plot point. Volcanoes only show up if somebody needs to drop a ring into them.
I never gave much thought to this facet of worldbuilding until I decided to write a series about a field biologist studying dragons. If I wanted to show the reader a great variety of dragons, it made sense to send my heroine to a great variety of environments, and if I wanted the field biology aspect to seem at all plausible, I had to learn about those environments and how they really work. Even though A Natural History of Dragons started her off her in a location modeled on the Carpathian Mountains of Romania—which is to say, a temperate European environment—I had to pay attention to details, like what type of stone those mountains are made of, and what kinds of trees grow there. When I got to later books in the series, I had to look into much less familiar territory. For In the Labyrinth of Drakes, I gave myself a crash course on deserts: what time of day do people travel? Where do they shelter? How do they navigate? Water is scarce, sure, but I hadn’t given thought to the necessity of waiting for a source to refill if it’s too small for your immediate needs, and prioritization of those needs. (Apparently it’s useful to travel with one or more milch camels, i.e. female ones giving milk, because they can drink the water and you can drink their milk.) I learned how to find food, and how to survive a sandstorm if you’re caught out in the open. Then, for the fifth and final book (Within the Sanctuary of Wings), I turned around and learned how you survive a mountain avalanche, how you construct houses for warmth in the Himalaya, what foods native to such regions will give you some vitamin C to help combat winter scurvy.
A whole realm of storytelling opened up before me when I got my head out of that vague temperate landscape. Diseases: I’ve gotten lots of narrative mileage out of inflicting malaria, yellow fever, and dengue on my characters. The logistics of traveling in certain kinds of terrain, like through a swamp or across a glacier. Food: goodbye Generic Fantasy Stew, hello termites, hippopotami, breadfruit, desert truffles, and butter tea. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area now, and I’ve decided that one of my upcoming projects will take place in a setting based on this region, with dry summers, wet winters, and fog that rolls in almost like clockwork. Sure, the main action will happen in a city–but now that I’ve started paying attention to such things, I’m more conscious of the fact that weather happens no matter where the characters are.
I still live a life very insulated from the natural world. But I’m more aware of that now, and when I start thinking about a new story, one of the first things I ask myself about the world is: what’s the climate like?
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