Alchemy of Writing:: World Building and sensory seduction

Secondary to characters, setting the scene in one’s story is high on the totem pole of Narration. While characters push the tale along, it’s the setting that helps form the plot. Things don’t happen in a vacuum. They happen within a sphere of influence concerning other people who dwell in this sphere, the political and cultural landscape, and weather. Yes, even weather.

Imagine you are a peasant dwelling in a rural area, and the weather is out of whack. Instead of normal seasonal progression, you’re stuck in a rainy winter that lasts two years. Two whole years of being unable to raise grain to feed you, your family, and your stock. Two years worth of rent, rotted in the field. Two years of watching your family and friends wither away and die of starvation and pestilence. Two years of praying to a God who doesn’t seem to hear the pitiful cries of the hungry and dying. Two years of raiders trying to claim any foodstuffs for themselves, stopping at nothing to feed or profit from the misery of others.

Two years of your life you will never get back. That is, assuming you survive.

So yeah, weather can play a huge part in the plot. This isn’t only for historical or fantasy writing; modern day is under the influence of weather and geology. If a volcano blows, ash is put into the atmosphere and planes won’t fly due to the damage ash can do to the jet engines.  Drought causes water wars.

Landscape plays a part as well. Oil pipelines leak, polluting water and harming every animal that drinks from the tainted well. You aren’t going to find super-lush fields of wheat growing in rocky soil that breaks plows. Mountains mean shorter growing periods, so depending on their location in relation to the equator will determine whether or not tropical fruits will be grown or found. Natural barriers are marvelous for separating cultures– and that in itself will drive a plotline.



Here are some things to keep in mind when wordsmithing to help fill out your world for the reader’s delight:

1- Establish your protagonist’s culture; any quirks or things that other cultures would find odd. For example, in a fantasy novel I am weaving, the first born children are fostered at a young age into a trade, and second born children inherit their parent’s property and holdings. Firstborns are the ambassadors of their people, being sent to other countries to serve nobility. This establishes how such people are treated by their own kind and by those they meet in other lands. Various statuses in life will yield the same result; an abbot vs a friar, for example. Or a wealthy land owner vs the peasant that rents his lands– their culture and how it perceives various members of it’s society will dictate how your characters act and what society will permit them to get away with.

2- Establish the setting using one’s senses; the crunch of dry leaves underfoot, the scent and sight of apples hanging heavy from trees, the brisk wind blowing in one’s face, the taste of the first harvested apple of the year… senses play their part in enriching the scene. Think in terms of texture when it comes to touch.

Whether perfume creating a trail through an empty ballroom, or the gnarly tang of human excrement clinging to the walls of a dungeon, scent should be present. If there nothing to smell, there’s nothing going on. Same for sound– reality doesn’t involve soundless voids (well, except for sensory deprivation chambers)… if nothing else, one will hear their heartbeat thunder in their ears.

3- Landscape is more than trees and hills; it dictates certain inevitabilities. If one lives on the coast, they’d probably eat more aquatic life than terrestrial. If they aren’t feasting on fish every day, then why? If the landscape is mountainous, how do the people survive? Do they import things like grain? Are they an insular people, protective of their meager lands, or are they open to all for trade and knowledge? What does their cities look like? Wood or stone? Mud? What is their preferred building material and why? You aren’t going to find cities of carved stone created by those without the technology to do so, such as smelting metal to create tools.   Questions like these should be at the base of your thought pyramid when it comes to creating various tribes, cultures, clans, civilizations. There is a logical reason behind most things; establish the reason and all other pieces fall into place. For example, coastal-dwelling people would most likely have boats of some kind at their disposal. Those who dwell in verdant lands of tillable soil would most likely count the bounty of their land as being equal or more important than gold– after all, one eats crops not coins. It is the land that is the basis of their wealth.

4- Technology is dependent upon resources; areas of bamboo jungle provide more building material than that of traditional timber. We know this because archeology has shown that in humid areas such as South East Asian rainforest, evidence of stone tools is lacking when compared to other areas at the same time in antiquity. That’s because material like bamboo is very abundant (growing a foot a day in certain conditions) and versatile, but decomposes after a few years. Bone, stone, and when preserved in favorable conditions (airless), wood remains to show those looking, how ancient man got things accomplished. So, if you’re writing about a civilization that lives in bamboo crannogs above the mangrove swamp, and use huge iron-tipped spears to hunt the tigers hunting them, you will need to explain how they acquire said iron. Did they smelt it? They’d need fuel that burns hotter than bamboo, and plenty of it to smelt their own, plus iron-rich sand. Did they trade for it? If so, what did they trade? Iron would be precious to them, so it would demand a high price. Given their resources, what could they trade to equal the price of a life-saving necessity?

5- Inspiration is around; just read a history book. Humanity is prone to patterns. These patters emerge, time and again if given enough time. Humans, no matter where they dwell on the planet or station in life, are opportunistic. Given half a chance, they would do what it takes to better themselves/family/lot in life. Transform the terrain to increase crop production, import plants from across the world, adapt technology and religions from other civilizations to suit their own society’s needs… The greatest inspiration one can take is reading how various civilizations have conquered each other; Romans took over great tracts of land; England married into various European royal houses and colonized the hell out of the globe via their navy; war, disease, “manifest destiny”… all these are tangents that can fill out a story. These are the events in the background of our lives, events that shape the future.


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