Geography, Climate, Resources & Peoples
Welcome back! Last time we had a quick dip into God, gods, and religion. This time, we’re taking a look at the terrestrial. But first, let’s zoom out just a little.
Three suns, four moons – great imagery, but how does the gravity affect the world? If you’re ignoring that, that’s great – if not, you’ve got a bit of maths to figure out! One question that I’m often confronted with in my own writing is the calendar: if there are multiple moons (which there frequently are in the novel series), how is a month measured? How many days are in a year? What is the makeup of the solar system?
Now onto terrestrial geography! Of course, you don’t have to stick to a world; why not set it in another dimension, or a space station, spaceship, an underwater world? Underground caverns can make a great starting point: perhaps the survivors of a post-apocalyptic disaster (as I did in my NaNoWriMo series 2011-2016. The actual story was set a few centuries after when people had rebuilt).
So let’s consider weather. Weather is great. It destroys, it nourishes, and without it, things would be very different (and we probably wouldn’t be here). Superstorms can be fantastic to write as a device, as can the extreme sun, but consider the impact they have on your world.
There are many ways to set up a world, but perhaps the easiest is simply begin by picking the sort of climate you want to base your story in and go from there. Temperate, the steppe, tropical, subtropical, arctic? The desert, of course, is about a lack of water. After the climate, you could consider the sort terrain you want: hills, flats, forest, mountains, rivers, lakes, seas… the list goes on.
Once you have that, you can begin to consider resources. A note first: mountains change everything; so do oceans. Take the Himalayas for example. Without those, earth’s terrain would be very, very different. My understanding (without going into too much detail) is that the sun heats the ocean, stirring the waters, which causes clouds to rise and the mountains draw these in and break them. There’s also stuff about ocean currents (cold and hot), the slipstream, the size of oceans). (I’m glossing over this; obviously there’s more to it).
For my main novel series, the protagonist’s homeland is set beside the sea and is flanked by mountains: they have a three-season year. The winds, the rains, and the heat. This is used to great effect by the populace who utilise the winds, the rains, and the sun as engines. There are also downsides, as campaigning during each of these have distinct disadvantages. One way they utilise the wind is to attach sails to carts (there is actually a historical precedent for this, which I later discovered. Land yachts). Windmills are another way they utilise the wind. Reservoirs, aqueducts to bring water to watermills. The sun I use to heat salt, which is used to hold warmth through the night and for steam (I later discovered there are actual, real-life solar towers that heat salt for steam. Go figure… the number of times I’ve reached something on my own only to find someone else has already done it. I should have released my NaNo the second it was written – before someone developed a solar aeroplane. Alas! I guess it means I’m on the right track though?).
This is just one example of how the climate can be utilised for the culture. Forests, historically, are also vital for the development of civilisation. Earth, cob, stone, wattle-and-daub, thatch, reeds (for mats, insulation, other uses), bamboo, straw… all these are terrific building materials. And not let’s forget clay: bricks. Where you are, what resources you have access to, it matters. Sand for glass is another example. And of course, iron. Tin and copper for bronze, coal, or charcoal… the list goes on.
And then we have animals. Animals are a resource. From livestock to pets, to mounts, to the engine of carts, chariots, etc, to bees that pollinate, birds that eat bugs, and whatnot. From fur to feathers, food to companions (oxen dragging a plough, a horse drawing a chariot (chariots came before riding as far as I’m aware), tracking with dogs, animal husbandry.
A lot depends on how advanced your society is, what animals are left (or were there to begin with). Are there mutated animals, from radiative fallout, perhaps? A magical cataclysm? Maybe an asteroid?
There’s a lot you can do with simple premises. Of course, not all resources need to be local: it’s usually better if they’re not. Trade, outposts, supply and transportation.
This is where things get interesting (or tricky), depending on how deep you want to go. For the purposes of this post, which is an introduction, we’ll keep things simple.
So maybe you have a concept in mind, maybe you don’t; maybe you have already got your peoples’ god/gods sorted, know what they’re like in peace and in war, and all you need now is to adapt them to their climate, terrain, and resources. Or maybe you have none of those.
But assuming you have only today’s post, we’ll start there.
Species. Pick a species first. What traits do you want? Or perhaps, look at the terrain and climate and go from there. Either way, your species will need to live where they’re based – is that through technology, having a fishbowl with water in as a helmet? Or a mouth-filter because the atmosphere is thick, thin, toxic? Maybe they have gills? Perhaps they’re human and the air is perfect (or filled with smog). Maybe they need magic to sustain their bubble (either around themselves or their settlement – maybe they’re nomadic and don’t have settlements).
Whatever you choose, it’s going to impact the environment, just as the environment will influence them.
Wings, for example, change everything. You should probably take into account how high your winged people can go, how far they can travel and for how long. Wings use up a lot of muscle so for it to be worthwhile, the payoff needs to make sense. Unless, of course, you don’t care about any of that, which is perfectly acceptable too.
In my NaNoWriMo series, I have characters who play a virtual reality, and I have all kinds of fantasy species in there, including a fäery/sprite – in her case, her wings are simply there because the game is a fantasy setting. There are some fun elements in it, but the foundations are fairly light because it is a game, and it’s expected to be one. There are a few serious things in it as well. But it serves to show that things can be as in-depth as you need them to be: the most important thing is the setting fits the story.
Putting it Together
So now you’ve got a species, you’ve figured out some of their quirks, it’s time to adapt them to the environment. Let’s take lizardfolk, for the sake of argument. Cold blooded, warm blooded? What terrain? The forested steppe? Subtropical or cooler? Let’s have the forested steppe be bordered by prairie (another kind of steppe); perhaps our lizardfolk have split into two peoples over the centuries, warmbloods and coolbloods. The coolbloods live in the prairie, and warmbloods in the subtropical forest. We’ll have some mountains nearby, and an ocean somewhere. There can be rivers to the north and to the south, where other migrant tribes – perhaps another species of lizardfolk, or river merfolk, travel along. We’ll go with river merfolk. They can trade with their coastal cousins thousands of miles away.
It will rain periodically, perhaps something like El Niño, simply because. And to justify that, we’ll stick a large ocean somewhere. But that’s another thing for another time and only vaguely affects the story – except for the storms, which our warmbloods will see as a gift from the gods, and the droughts as a punishment in their early development. Perhaps, as they advance, they will see it as a natural phenomenon or maybe, the gods really are responsible for the weather patterns. Perhaps the gods actually demand sacrifices – and the warmbloods wage war on the coolbloods in order to appease their gods. Or demonic overlords. Or perhaps, they see it as part of a cycle and believe it strengthens them through times of plenty and times of hardship; as a result, they develop deep reservoirs to harness the floods and grow a certain breed of flower that only likes the dry seasons.
Our coolbloods, on the other hand, may resent the rain and see it as a sign of oppression because it floods the prairies and ruins their hard-won rammed earth roads. Perhaps they herd sheep, or mammoths, and take their wool as clothing. There’s not a lot of wood, but they trade their wool and mammoth milk (which they make into cheese), with the river merfolk. The river merfolk have access to others who mine iron, and make tools. Mammoth cheese is a delicacy, which the coolblooded lizards trade for pearls and tools. Meanwhile, the warmbloods trade onyx, amber, flowers or something akin to coconuts. Perhaps feathers are a form of currency and considered to be more precious than gold (which, in this culture, has no value – yet. That will change when its conductive properties are discovered, and electricity, found as a result of chemical batteries, are developed).
This is just off the top of my head. The point is, the resources and terrain affect the culture (and the technologies).
Furthering the Worldbuilding
Perhaps the coolbloods engage in a sort of chariot racing with mammoths. The only thing keeping the coolbloods from overrunning their warmblooded cousins is… an ancient treaty, recent treaties, infighting, the gods’ decree, the warmbloods’ spike traps, the humidity that the mammoths and coolbloods despise, the superior weapon technology of the warmbloods…
The reason the warmbloods don’t invade… maybe they did, occupied the prairies but their empire fell apart. The great uprisings, in which the mammoth, now the symbol of the coolbloods, helped overthrow the tyranny of the cruel self-proclaimed goddess-queen of the warmbloods, may she ever burn, along with a confederation of warmbloods. The …banquet of feathers is used to mark that day so never again will one tyrant emerge. Or something along those lines. So now, in place of an empress, there are triumvirs.
To the coolbloods, reservoirs become a symbol of oppression, which the mammoths helped destroy, rather than of civilisation and life.
Another narrative of that history claims that there were feuding towns and one wise leader, sick of the bloodshed, formed together a great union, but her corrupt advisors fed her lies while leeching from the people. Desperate for more power, those within the imperial court funded and fostered rebellions, in order that harsher laws could be evoked, and the empress would be toppled, and they could take her place.
Neither history is entirely true but there are elements of truth within both. However, it is more convenient for the current regime to depict the first narrative. (Perhaps a slightly cynical outlook). Again, this is just off the top of my head.
Maybe the merfolk bring warships along the river and raid the northern prairie, keeping the coolbloods distracted?
Maybe this goes on for hundreds of years and it suddenly changes when gunpowder is discovered. An alchemist of the republic court stumbles upon a mixture when the foul-smelling sulphur used in the ancient purification rituals is mixed with charcoal and saltpetre. Perhaps that alchemist is searching for a medicine to relieve the effects of “wilting sickness” that strikes with the droughts. Guns, of course, aren’t the first thing invented, but perhaps kegs of blasting powder are used to re-sculpt the landscape, and wouldn’t you just know it, but mammoths are terrified of the noise. The pressurised kegs are experimented with and fireworks are created – and with them, rockets. Those rockets are used to mark the ascent of the cultural superiority of the warmbloods, but the secret is leaked/traded and within two hundred years, everyone has it.
Anyway, that’s just one direction this could go in.
The most important thing is that the setting fits the story. Your setting is its own character, the backdrop and stage for your cast.
In such a setting, as described above, perhaps we have a young warmblood who runs away from home, desperate to find the pale-blue northern prairie flower that the court alchemist says might heal her mother who is suffering from wilting sickness. Along the way, she meets a young mammoth rider, determined to prove himself, but in reality, he is just a cheese merchant, and his young mammoth has been his friend since they were born. He too, has set off, because his older brother was captured by merfolk, (who are not, in fact, a unified collective, but a disparate group of tribes, fragmented but telepathically linked), and he seeks to win enough of a fortune to buy him back.
Both journey together, and as they reach the northern river shores, they find a wounded merfolk.
What happens next? A solar eclipse, heralding a terrible event, in the form of a solar storm? Romance? Blood feuds? Is our heroine a princess? Is our hero a prince? Are they both just normal kids trying to make their way in the world? Is it a cultural coming of age rite?
We might never know – unless someone wants to write this as ‘homework’. We can return to this particular thought exercise later (perhaps we can examine the tools of the prairie – flint, for example, while the warmbloods use bronze.) Alternatively, it could be a highly developed set of societies that have developed stellar travel, a magic heavy society that taps into reservoirs of mana and set obelisks and stone circles on sacred sites. Maybe there are white prairie bunny-rabbits that are viewed as harbingers of fortune – or delicacies. Maybe they are magical companions or just pests that ruin the landscape by burrowing. Perhaps they attract the deadly subtropical green venom snake from the forested steppe, a snake that is prized for its deadly bite. Maybe the rabbit drove the green venom snake out of the prairie. Perhaps the rabbit appears only once every century, and there is but one of it, and the snake, also a myth, is locked in a deadly dance which has become an allegory for love.
And while we’re on the topic of love: perhaps the coolbloods give birth to live young while the warmbloods lay eggs (just to switch things up). Maybe the warmbloods take periodic trips into the prairie to lay their eggs in the sands beneath the surface, while the coolbloods travel to the rivers because they believe that all births must take place in water. As a result of this, the coolbloods view water as sacred. (This makes the reservoirs even more of an abomination, as it disrupts the natural flow and tries to control what should be wild and free.)
A Second Plot
That day, winged invaders descended from the clouds, their great chariots blotting out the sun. Fleeing this terrible menace, the soft-skinned people of the north, cave-dwellers, with whom we traded mammoth milk for their barley ale, swarmed into our lands, trampling the grass. Even together, we feared the terror of the skies would prove too much.
With their rituals, we were able to erect the stone circles that provided shelter, and from these, we made our stand as the invaders placed down towers harder than any stone in our skies.
A generation later, we understood why they had come: in their flight, a terrible foe stalked them, and from its hands, a sentient plague awoke our fallen. Neither flint nor fire fazed them; only the myths of our ancestors offered us solace: we would begin the sacrifices to wake our sleeping goddess-queen. With perfume and resin, we would enthrone her, and she will save us.
Perhaps one final thing to consider is the size of our lizardfolk. Are they tiny, sprite-sized, or roaming colossuses? Maybe they’re eight-nine foot tall. It will make a difference!
This is just a few ideas that you could use to help shape your world. I think this is a good place to pause for now, so we’ll pick things up next time. Thanks for reading!