Tag Archives: creating fantasy landscapes

World building part 1: visualization #amwriting

World building—a skill all writers must have, not just writers of fantasy or sci-fi. I don’t believe there is a magic formula. ALL world building comprises the ability to visualize yourself existing in an environment you currently don’t occupy, be it Seattle, Mars, or The Shire.

First, you need to know where you are.

Close your eyes. What does the world around you look like? Are you sitting in a lounger on a quiet back porch, drinking your morning coffee while you scroll through your favorite blogs? Perhaps you regret purchasing the blue and white patterned outdoor carpet. It jars the eye, clashes against the red-stained cedar decking.

Even more annoying, Stellar’s jays and crows are quarreling over something, which means no other birds will come until they have settled their dispute. Meanwhile, the neighbor’s garishly colored cat stalks through the rhododendrons toward the broken garden lamp, vainly searching for songbirds to bully. Who would want a cat so hideously colored, black, orange white and beige all in large patches? And why do they let it roam? What if it gets injured or killed?

While I visualize that scene, I am sitting in my frequently described Room of Shame, pecking away at a blog post like a good author. For that scene, I am only describing what is important to my alter ego at the moment she exists, a framework to hang your imagination onto. But I know that environment because it is one step away, out my back door.

If you can’t write what you know, how can you write what you don’t know but wish you did?

For your first exercise, write two paragraphs describing your personal environment, where you are in this time and space, what you see, hear, and smell. With that done, you have created the known world.

So how do we translate the known into the unknown?

For this exercise, we will imagine a setting, a world blasted by a global catastrophe. Not sure exactly of what happened, our protagonist, Jane, walks through the wreckage of the city, trailed by a large group of young children and several other teachers. In an overcrowded, under-funded urban school, they had been relegated to a classroom in the school’s basement at the time and may be the only survivors, but Jane believes that if they are alive, some others must be too. They are walking out of the city, hoping that some patches are still undamaged, that some plants and animals must have survived.

What does she see, hear, and smell? You write your scenario, but this is mine:

Jane walked, pretending a confidence she didn’t feel. Random piles of debris that once were shops and homes lined the broken street. Was that where the café had been? No, it had been a little further on, but with no familiar landmarks, it was hard to tell.

No birds sang, no cats prowled, and no dogs barked. Twisted metal, destroyed, burned-out cars lined the broken street. No rescuers combed through the tumbled ruins looking for survivors, and no voices called for help. The only sounds were the wind sighing through the ruins, the noise of their plodding steps, and occasional whimpers of the children who followed her.

They passed places where the smell of rotting flesh and other unpleasant odors triggered her gag reflex. Some children cried. Who could blame them? The charred, shattered ruins they now walked past had been their homes. Did they know? Could they recognize small details?

How does her environment affect her movements and emotional state?

She came to a large, long pile of wreckage in the middle of the street, cars that had been moving when it happened. She didn’t want to think of the bodies that remained trapped inside the twisted, melted metal, of the last moments they had experienced. The way between was narrow, but they could do it. She turned to her group. “Walk carefully, single file. No one is to touch anything. We have no way of treating injuries.”

“Yes, Miss Jane,” said Jason, the teacher shepherding the middle of the group.

“Yes, Miss Jane,” dutifully echoed the students, all the way back to Dave, the teacher bringing up the rear.

The world around you is complex. It is made up of what you interact with, things you see, hear, smell, and touch.

The world you want to create is the same. Visualize each scene. Trees, randomly placed furniture, doors, any obstacle that affects your protagonists’ movements becomes part of that world.

Your next assignment is to take one of these scenarios and write a scene that places your protagonist squarely in their environment. You can make these settings in a real world, sci-fi, or fantasy environment.

  1. A policewoman/man having lunch at the corner deli.
  2. A barista in a popular coffee shop.
  3. A woman watching her suspicious-acting neighbors.
  4. A soldier, preparing for a raid.
  5. A politician reading an exposé about their self.

I can make my back porch into a fantasy setting.

This is a passage from Edna’s Garden, a short story I wrote several years ago.

This morning I noticed there were fairies in the back garden. I was a little shocked, wondering if they were a side effect of my heart medication. At first, I couldn’t see them well, and wasn’t sure if they were bugs or birds, but no… when I looked closer, I could see they were definitely fairies.

It seems odd to me, to think that after all these years of wishing for a fairytale ending in my life, I should finally have a garden full of fairies. But life is what it is, and sometimes the things you want elude you until you no longer need them.

World building is like cooking (or alchemy, which is the same thing). Writers start with basic ingredients found in the world they know. Cooks begin with common ingredients and add spices, the flavors they like that make their food unique to them. Writers do the same: we take the familiar world and reshape it until it is our creation.

If the world has some familiar elements the reader can relate to, they will suspend their disbelief when you casually place an alien element in the setting. We bend what is familiar, shaping it into something that feels new and unfamiliar. That unfamiliarity to the reader adds the mystery, the intrigue, lets them experience a sense of discovery.

At the outset, you plant the seeds of the world in the opening scene. As the story progresses, the world grows, building itself. This happens because the protagonist interacts with the environment. Fulfilling the needs of the protagonist also contributes to the world you build. Logic comes into play—you may have to go back and change things up a bit when new needs emerge.

We will talk more about how need shapes the fantasy world in my next blog post. In the meantime, go to your personal library and re-read one of the fantasy books (or whatever genre you are writing) that fired your imagination, a book you fell in love with. How did that author show the world? How did they take the real world and merge it with fantasy elements?

How can you apply that lesson to your own work?


Credits and Attributions:

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Martinus Rørbye – View from the Artist’s Window – Google Art Project.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Martinus_R%C3%B8rbye_-_View_from_the_Artist%27s_Window_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg&oldid=326761582 (accessed May 17, 2019).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:An architectural capriccio with figures amongst ruins under a stormy night sky, oil on canvas painting by Leonardo Coccorante.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:An_architectural_capriccio_with_figures_amongst_ruins_under_a_stormy_night_sky,_oil_on_canvas_painting_by_Leonardo_Coccorante.jpg&oldid=291488853 (accessed May 19, 2019).

Hunter in Winter Wood, by George Henry Durrie 1860 [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

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#amwriting fantasy: creating the landscape

Map of Mal Evol, color full size, no roadsWhen I am reading a fantasy, I can get completely immersed, if the author has been kind enough to use a mix of familiar earthly landscapes to create his world.  Readers do need to have a small bit of “the known” to hang their imaginations on.

In my book, Tower of Bones, I write about a landscape that has been devastated, first by war, and secondly by the slow, deliberate poisoning of the environment.  The God, Tauron, seeks to change Neveyah into a copy of his own desert world of Serende.  At the time of our story, the immense crater Valley of Mal Evol is a wasteland of thorn-bushes and scorpions.  Few people live there, and those who do are slaves to the Legions of D’Mal, the minotaur soldiers of the Bull God.

The World of Neveyah is actually the state of Washington, in all its bipolar glory, but “on steroids.”

The God Tauron carved the Valley of Mal Evol out of the mountains when he imprisoned his brother. That created the landscape that was not unlike that of Eastern Washington, some of which was carved by a disaster. Before the disaster, this land was likely similar to the area around Spokane and toward Colville, prairies with large forests of lodgepole pines.

Drumheller Channels, Washington State

Channeled Scablands, Washington State

The Channeled Scablands are a relatively barren and soil-free landscape on the eastern side of the  state of Washington near Grand Coulee Dam, and Dry Falls. It’s an area that was scoured by floods unleashed when a large glacial lake drained at the end of the last ice age. I took this landscape and magnified it, making it the place where two vastly different worlds touch.

I live 60 miles due north of Mt. St. Helens, an active stratovolcano that has erupted several times in my lifetime. As a teenager in the fall of 1970, 10 years before the eruption, my earth-science class visited the lava-tubes that were popular tourist destinations in those days.  The volcano was considered to be of no threat to anyone, practically dead, really.

Mt. St. Helens from Spirit Lake prior to 1980

Mt. St. Helens from Spirit Lake prior to 1980 via ABC news

As this photo shows, it had a beautiful shape to it, like Mt. Fuji, and was featured on calendars and postcards for its beauty and majesty.  The verdant forests were tall and thick, mostly Douglas Fir and Western Red Cedar.  Spirit Lake, at its base, was a playground for summer vacationers.  My family spent many summer holidays at the campgrounds and the lodge there.

PD United States Geological Survey, via Wikipedia

PD United States Geological Survey, via Wikipedia

All that changed overnight on May 18th, 1980, when the mountain erupted.  We could see the ash column quite clearly from the lake in the Bald Hills of Thurston County, where we were fishing that morning, and we knew something really bad had happened at the mountain. Entire forests were blown down and buried under volcanic ash. Spirit Lake was both destroyed and reborn in a different form.

The destruction of the ecology is one of the underlying themes of the World of Neveyah series.

But the miraculous way the land around Mt. St. Helens has rebounded in the last 35 years is also working its way into my World of Neveyah–Tauron’s spell is broken, and the land will recover.  The devastation of Mal Evol looks permanent, and is terrible to those who know what it once was like, but they have hope that it will recover.

In the World of Neveyah series, I created the Mountains of the Moon, out of which the valley of Mal Evol was torn. I understood how mountains can rise high into the sky, blocking the rising or setting sun. Also, I used the climate of the Scablands here in Washington–the climate is typified by large seasonal temperature differences, with excruciatingly hot  summers and severely cold winters, and that is how I made Mal Evol. Remember, dealing with weather offers great opportunity for mayhem in the narrative.

I live on the heavily forested western side of the state, 50 miles west of 14,411 ft tall  Mount Rainier, beneath the Nisqually Glacier. That sight dominates my front-yard skyline on a clear day. The valley I live in was carved by glaciers and eruptions from this amazing pile of rock, ice, and fire. I took this idea, but I made my mountains taller and badder than the Himalayas on a bad Mt. Everest day.

Mount Rainier, Nisqually Glacier, ©2010 Walter Siegmund Via Wikipedia

Mount Rainier, Nisqually Glacier, © 2010 Walter Siegmund Via Wikipedia

We here in our bipolar State of Washington are able to see how the landscape can radically change if you just drive west east (thank you Scott Driscoll!) on I-90 for four hours.

Because  of my good fortune of living in the shadow of two large volcanoes, and between two high mountain ranges, the Olympic Mountains and the Cascade Range,  I have the opportunity to experience a wide diversity of ecologies in one day, going from saltwater to mountain range, to desert.

You may find your inspiration elsewhere. It could be in anything from architecture to ornamental gardens, to cornfields or sage brush.

Never_Cry_Wolf_PosterWhile the window of our own experience is an amazing place to find our inspiration for our fantasy environments, the internet is a valuable tool. Google Earth is a wonderful resource for viewing a real-time image of an area you need to see to understand.

Google Earth is as much of a squirrel as Facebook is, in that I got very little done when researching with it–I’m sure it was all research. Really.

Consider going to the movies–it’s amazing what great scenery you will find in an old movie. One thing I don’t have access to experience in person is wild caribou–for that reason much of my mental imagery for how wild herd animals of North America behave and the environment in which they live comes from a great movie, called Never Cry Wolf. The cinematography and the actual scenery is incredible, and the mood of the land is captured in one of the better films of the twentieth century.

The root ideas are what you hang the fabrication on, just a frame for the canvas you will paint with your words. It’s your world, but if it is to feel solid to the reader, there must be some small familiarity for them to have that  “Oh, I know this place” moment.

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Filed under Fantasy, History, Mt St Helens, Self Publishing, writing