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Sand of Bone heads off to its editor and final reader tonight, so I'm taking a little break in order to let me brain think about something else for a bit.

I am not a structured worldbuilder. Before writing, I do not sit down to answer a hundred questions about culture, religion, navigation, textiles, government, livestock, gender relations, history, trade, exploration, child-rearing, and economics. That's not my process. (For that, check out this post, wherein I discuss altering my worldbuilding to fit the plot rather than the other way around.)

That doesn't mean I don't care. I deeply care. I don't expect to get everything right, but I want it to be right enough to keep the reader with me.

There's a great deal of writerly talk about educating ourselves on history, government, economics, and culture. That's absolutely necessary. But what hangs me up more often than not is geology and botany. Certainly I could just make everything up, but constructing properly integrated flora and fauna and climate and geography from the ground up is beyond my ken. So I do what most of us do: attempt to match my world and plot needs to a Real World equivalent, and adapt within parameters broad enough to be flexible yet narrow enough to avoid (as much as possible) Flying Snowmen.






"...every now and then, fist-sized bats swooped in to feed on the pale moths flitting around pomegranate trees not yet in bloom."     Sand of Bone





The sentence fragment is from a scene that takes place in a desert with a short winter and long summer, at a time roughly equivalent to late February in the northern hemisphere. It has to be that time of year in order for the timing of other events—one around the solstice—to take place. And I wanted bats. Not hibernating bats, but active bats.*

The only bats I knew of hibernate from fall to spring. Thankfully, I discovered there are many species of bats that don't hibernate—enough I could play with size and habitat to fit the plot—so I was in the clear.

Next, I needed something for the bats to eat, and I wanted their airborne prey to be large enough for the viewpoint character to see from the balcony. Do these non-hibernating bats feed on moths? Yes, I discovered, they do.

Next question: are those moths around in late February? This took a little more Google-Fu than the bat question. Eventually I came across a couple websites with February photos of moths, mostly taken by folks looking to identify them—in desert terrain. Ta-da! Moths and bats.

Finally, the pomegranate tree. I had one in my Southern California backyard when I was a kid. Every year, it produced a zillion pomegranates the size of softballs. Not until I moved out on my own did I realize just how expensive pomegranates could be. I can't tell you how many times I've wished that tree could be transported to my current home. (The lime tree would be nice, too, because it produced like there was no tomorrow. My sister and I made pocket money pulling our wagon through the neighborhood to sell limes door-to-door.)

As clearly as I remember gorging on pomegranates, I have no recollection of the seasonal timing of blooms and fruit production. That, of course, might have something to do with the shallow seasons one experiences in Southern California. The answer was simple to find, though. I could have my pomegranate tree for the character to look upon, but no blossoms until mid-spring.

This, my darlings, is why revisions can take me so long.

Will most readers give a damn? Gods above, I hope not. I mean, if my readers are more focused on the damned moth than the plot and characters, I have most likely failed to tell a compelling story.** But such "unnoticed" details form a larger picture, and sometimes its faults are actually easier to see in the whole than in the parts. The non-detail-oriented reader might not be able to point out what seems amiss, but that indistinct sense of imbalance will put distance between the writer and the story.

Distance is bad. Immersion is key.

However, unrelenting specificity will kill interest just as quickly. My reader doesn't need to know everything about the Muscat mouse-tailed bat (though I do think it's cool one of their designated roosting sites is "in pyramids). The reader simply needs to believe the bat swooping through the courtyard fits in the world the characters inhabits.

Having said all that, I expect I've made a glaring error or two that an expert will one day find. I'll research and fact-check every piece of worldbuilding I don't hold complete confidence in. It's the things I'm certain I know—but don't—that will come back to nip my rear someday.




*Hibernating bats would have added a different creepy to many cavern scenes—and I reserve the right to use such later—but would not have served the plot so well.

**Yes, yes, I know a subset of readers will enjoy the details. If you are one of those readers, AWESOME! Just don't expect the majority of readers to be on the same, er, page.

Comments

( 22 comments — Leave a comment )
elenbarathi
Jun. 23rd, 2014 08:38 pm (UTC)
I'm one of those persnickity readers who do give a damn if the bats are behaving correctly, and will bitch about it if they're not.

I like the 'Flying Snowmen' post and discussion; thanks! IMHO, the entire hot-lava scene in Jackson's RotK was red-hot flaming bullshit from start to finish anyway. I've been a hard-core Tolkien geek since 1973, and the last plank fell out of my Suspension Bridge of Disbelief when the wargs the size of SUVs attacked before Helm's Deep. Peter Jackson has NO frickin' clue; he's taken a classic of English literature and dumbed it down to a stupid comic book.

Note, however, that Tolkien had some 'Flying Snowmen' of his own. In The Hobbit, for instance, he has the Moon rising after dark and thus giving light for Bard the bowman to shoot Smaug, but it had been the New Moon that revealed the Secret Keyhole the night before. If one is going to make the precise phase of the Moon an important plot-point, it makes no sense at all to just throw that away for no reason - or rather, for the extremely sloppy reason that a rising Full Moon was convenient to the tale, but waiting two weeks for it was not.

Tolkien's sloppy about where the food comes from, too. Gildor Inglorion's fair apples and white bread, for instance - because the Wood Elves are renowned for their wheat fields and apple orchards, right? The Dwarves of Khazad-dum didn't produce their own food, but rather, traded with Men: yeah right, "Potatoes, 1 bushel, 5 gold pieces."

Of course, all that sort of thing is small potatoes compared to Peter Jackson's blatantly violating all the laws of both physics and physiology whenever he feels like it. One can't even care about the characters very much, because they get beat and battered and dropped off cliffs onto rock, and take no more damage from it than Wiley Coyote would.

In general, I would say that the more fantastical elements one wants the reader to accept, the more careful one has to be to get the non-fantastical elements right. I can accept a dragon; I can accept a talking bird; I can even accept a talking bird that turns into a dragon, but there's no possible way I can accept a Full Moon two days after a New Moon. It's like having sunrise two hours after sunset, like they did in The Truman Show.
blairmacg
Jun. 24th, 2014 01:49 am (UTC)
In general, I would say that the more fantastical elements one wants the reader to accept, the more careful one has to be to get the non-fantastical elements right.

That's it in a nutshell, yes.

As a reader, I'm pretty forgiving if the writer has led me to care about the characters, and I can let quite a few things pass. The errors have to be pretty big and basic (yeah, the moon thing bugs me) to pull me out of the story. Bats in the wrong place? I'll let the writer hand-wave. A non-enhanced human beat half to death, then fighting at full capacity the next day? Nope.

queenoftheskies
Jun. 23rd, 2014 09:37 pm (UTC)
I could be wrong, but it seems to me that most of the nit-picking goes on with science fiction and historical fiction of various kinds. (Once again, I could be wrong there.)

I think details like the one you mentioned add depth to the story without throwing in so much detail that the reader gets bogged down. I have to stop reading books that, to me, are over-written with more detail than story.

I'm so happy for you! How exiting that you're so close to publishing! This is such a great novel!
blairmacg
Jun. 24th, 2014 01:56 am (UTC)
I think the nitpicking depends on the reader more than the genre. The difference between fantasy and SF, I think, is that there are actually fewer readers who understand pre-industrial life than *believe* they understand science. It never occurs to most folks to think about seasonal food availability, the time involved in clothing construction, or the effort and organization it takes to travel twenty miles on foot!

And details can indeed overwhelm. I think of them as parts of a tapestry. I want the entire picture to look awesome and complex. I don't want the first reaction to be, "Too much red thread!" :)
elenbarathi
Jun. 25th, 2014 07:55 pm (UTC)
"there are actually fewer readers who understand pre-industrial life than *believe* they understand science."

Except SCAdians, and even in the SCA, there's a tendency to think "Hey, this stuff's not so hard." Well, no, it's not, when one can choose when and how much to do it, and doesn't have to do ALL The Things all the time, come winter, come war-time, come plague, famine, tyranny, pregnancy. Fine to deal with our well-fed, well-sheltered, veterinary-attended modern horses with their professionally-made tack, but those are not the horses of the pre-industrial age.

It doesn't take too much effort and organization to travel 20 miles on foot if one's destination will have food and a bed - if the road and the weather are good, one really only needs to bring a hearty lunch and a jug of water. If it's sloppy weather, bad terrain, and one has to sleep out, something to sleep under is called for, plus a warm cloak, a tinderbox, and a bigger sack of provisions. But the people of the olden times were great walkers, and a lot of folk lived their whole lives without ever owning more than they could easily carry with them, so many of them might have done 20 miles without even thinking about it.

LOL, "A Hobbit will carry a set of cast-iron cookware all the way to Mordor, and cry when he has to throw it away. An Elf flits out with a pocketful of cookies wrapped in a leaf."
blairmacg
Jun. 26th, 2014 01:28 pm (UTC)
Most folks would have trouble walking 20 miles today, though, let alone knowing what they'd need (and not need) to bring. There isn't much of a frame of reference.

And it's indeed *very* different to live pre-industrial for a weekend than for lifetime. The practicalities of food acquisition and storage alone is daunting, and takes far more skill and effort than most imagine. Every natural disaster demonstrates how little thought most put into it.

(Digression: I'm a staunch believer in the responsibility able folks have to be prepared for emergencies, thus allowing limited resources to go to those who are unable to prepare.)
elenbarathi
Jun. 27th, 2014 05:27 am (UTC)
Twenty miles is a pretty long haul for a single day, it's true - call it 2 miles per hour, with an hour for lunch and a couple of good breaks, that's 12 hours; one would certainly be very ready for supper and bed after that.

On the other hand, two miles an hour is not a very strenuous pace (assuming decent weather and terrain.) A great many folk today would complain bitterly if they had to walk one mile, and would be totally outraged if anyone expected them to cover 20 between dawn and dusk, but that doesn't mean they couldn't do it if they had to - aye, and get up the next day and cover 20 more.

*shrugs* I'm 56 years old, thirty pounds overweight, with high blood pressure, a surgically-repaired knee, and arthritic feet. Fifteen miles is about as far as I want to walk in a single day any more, but I could do twenty if I had a reason - LOL, such as being lost as hell, with no choice but to keep walking till I found my way, as sometimes happens.

Nobody really lives pre-industrial even for a weekend at camping events - it's just not feasible. Without bottled water, it wouldn't be possible to even have camping events in most places, and without porta-potties? No way! Potable water and sanitation are the crucial issues, as every natural disaster demonstrates - without them, people don't live long enough to starve to death.

It's pretty wild where I live; there's a lot of local agriculture, and most people grow, gather, hunt and/or fish for at least some of their own food. This doesn't mean we'd be able to keep everybody fed if we suddenly lost electricity and were cut off from the mainland - the population's just too high; plus most of the agriculture relies on electrically-pumped irrigation. If we had a year to prepare...? It could be done; that doesn't mean it would be.

I hear a lot of silly young survivalist-wannabees talk about "taking to the mountains" in case of disaster. Yeah right; there's no food up there; that's why the Native people all lived along the shore. They still live there, in fact, and own most of the tidelands, and aren't patient with trespassers. Seems to me that anyone fit enough to take to the mountains in case of disaster would do better to stay and volunteer their services to whatever relief-efforts were going on: more chance of getting fed, and less of getting shot.
blairmacg
Jun. 27th, 2014 11:29 am (UTC)
Watching and learning from my Amish neighbors was extremely educational. Certainly some of them use some modern conveniences, but mostly to make it easier to interact with the English, not to survive. If the End of the World comes, it's the Amish who will have all the skills they need to survive -- farming, hunting, animal husbandry, food preservation, carpentry, smithing, all non-electric supporting skills, and strong community.

Surviving in the mountains would depend on what climate of mountains. Sierra Nevadas provide far different resource bases than, say, Appalachians. But the shore is certainly an easier environment in which to survive!

elenbarathi
Jun. 27th, 2014 07:31 pm (UTC)
What we've got here is the Olympic Mountains rising up out of the temperate rainforest. It's not that there's no food up there - there's deer, elk, black bear, invasive mountain goats - but they'd be hunted to extinction in a single season if the hunting wasn't so strictly regulated.

Same with all the wild foods. The Native folk here never went hungry - "acres of clams", as the song says - but if all the people currently living on the northern Olympic Peninsula had to rely on shellfish as a primary food-source, the tidelands would quickly be devastated. So would the local tribes who own them, because they sure would not let them be taken without a fight.

It would be easy enough to survive in the Wild here, as long as the Wild was not full of starving, gun-toting city-dwellers fleeing the destruction of their cities - scaring the game, trampling the ecosystem, fouling the waters, starting forest fires... that'd be a nightmare. All these survival-fantasists seem to assume that they'd be the only people 'out there', and/or that the Wild is so big and bountiful that it can support any amount of large, voracious omnivores indefinitely.

The Amish ways are very cool - I never knew any of the Amish personally, but used to go to Lancaster PA when I was a student, and particularly admired their fine horses. Unfortunately, if the End of the World comes, the Amish will be over-run, and all the stuff they have will be taken from them - probably by Duly Constituted Authority acting under the provisions of Martial Law, who would get around to them long before the gun-toting survivalists did. Unlike the Native tribes around here, the Amish have no tradition of armed resistance to Authority, so most would probably comply.

The SCA has always been full of people who think songs like this are how things would really be If. They seem to forget that the cops have helicopters and firebombs, and are not afraid to use them.
blairmacg
Jun. 29th, 2014 08:00 pm (UTC)
If neighbors of the Amish were smart, they'd guard Amish homesteads against violence as if the homes were their own. And I do know some folks who would indeed take on the role of protector.

Hmm. (wanders away to must about storylines...)
elenbarathi
Jun. 29th, 2014 08:54 pm (UTC)
That's certainly true, but I think well-intentioned bureaucratic officialness would be a more immediate threat to their orderly way of life than violence. The kind of mind-set that goes with the job of enforcing long-term martial law tends not to be the kind that groks the value of cultural diversity.

The Amish country would have the same problem the Olympic Peninsula would have: all the hungry refugees fleeing the nearby urban areas, over-running the countryside. The same problem only worse, because we've got natural barriers of sea and mountain; there's only two roads that come here, and the off-road terrain is too rough to traverse. We've also got a significant military presence that would check-point those roads, and no doubt coordinate aid and ration resources.

Myself, I would lend my support to the people who took on the role of protector long before the disaster started, even though it's possible I would not agree with a lot of their decisions. As long as the Rule of Law holds, we've got the Constitution to fall back on, and a lot of the people who took an oath to uphold it really did mean what they said. But if the Rule of Law falls, so that the citizenry starts shooting at its own erstwhile duly-sworn guardians, we're all screwed.

Of course the ideal thing would be if everybody pulled together - civilian and military, urban and rural, alternative and mainstream - to keep Life As Usual going on as smoothly as possible for everybody during the 'temporary inconvenience'. I guess it would all depend on the nature of the inconvenience, and how temporary it actually turned out to be.

green_knight
Jun. 24th, 2014 08:38 am (UTC)
I think there are two ways of breaking the suspension of disbelief. One is the flying snowman - which is just one detail too many; but the other are mundane details without context. And when the in-story context is missing, readers fall back on what they know about the real world.
(Personally, as a geographer, fluid lava just has me thinking of different lava types: while it is unlikely to coincide with the cone shape of Mount Doooooom, I've come across at least one volcano that changed the composition of its lava, so even that is not impossible.) If MtDoom had been the liquid outlet of evil miasmas in Middle Earth, of clearly magical origins, its viscosity would not have raised as many red flags with people.

And the problem is that readers can stumble over details even when you *have* done your research. If I need to look things up because I cannot believe them, a book has failed for me, whether they turn out to be extremely well-researched or extremely poorly researched; and the solution to that isn't to do more research, but to provide better foundations.


blairmacg
Jun. 25th, 2014 09:41 am (UTC)
I like that notion of building better foundations, not just for the fantastical elements, but for the mundane ones as well. Sometimes we writers come up against what "everyone knows" to be true, but isn't true at all.
green_knight
Jun. 25th, 2014 02:15 pm (UTC)
I don't think 'facts' matter as much as that you've just sent your reader to Wikipedia. They might not emerge for hours...

And I think it's a fairly simple guideline: if this were a made-up fact, would it stand for itself or would it need explanation? The less likely something seems, the more support it wants, and rather than pulling readers out of the story or getting into an argument with them, this can be avoided.

This is part of the continuum where writers leave readers alone to build up an image of something - by simply saying 'field' for instance - and then creating backlash when it turns out the writer was thinking of a cornfield instead of a pasture, or vice versa. (It's perfectly possible to get this wrong in so many ways, of course, but I tend to like books where details are an integral part better than ones where they feel tacked on.)
thanate
Jun. 25th, 2014 01:32 am (UTC)
Related rant: I read The Magicians and Mrs Quent probably upwards of a decade ago and at this remove the thing that I remember most clearly was that they had some kind of complex non-seasonal weather patterns that involved wildly variant day lengths and random instances of snow when you had too many short or nonexistant days together, and not only did the people keep something resembling a 24-hour schedule, but they had earth-type deciduous trees. I'm sorry, but oaks do not work under these conditions.
blairmacg
Jun. 25th, 2014 09:44 am (UTC)
That's one heck of a missed worldbuilding opportunity! How cool it would have been had the consequences/adaptations of variant days and changeable weather been explored at all levels of the story!
elenbarathi
Jun. 25th, 2014 09:21 pm (UTC)
Now I'm sitting here trying to picture orbital parameters that would even allow for wildly variant day lengths without totally violating Newton's First Law of Motion. Would have to be a multi-sun system; the planet would probably have to be a lot bigger than Earth and a lot farther from its primaries, with a really wonky orbit.

Oaks would definitely not work.
thanate
Jun. 26th, 2014 12:53 am (UTC)
My vague recollection is that there was something with eclipses and high satellite density that got between their planet and their sun(s), but I could be misremembering. There were accurate almanacs for what light to expect, but no mention that I recall of how in the world they managed to grow food.
elenbarathi
Jun. 27th, 2014 06:19 am (UTC)
That sounds as plausible as anything - maybe the planet itself was one moon of a gas giant?

Seems to me that if people moved to such a world, either they'd find a natural ecosystem there already, in which there might well be things to eat, or they wouldn't find one, so they'd have to terraform. If they terraformed, whatever plants they put in would have to be tailored to the environment, especially to the variable light levels. In any case, the basic presumption has to be that the people are growing food, because if they weren't, they couldn't live there, and thus there'd be no story.



thanate
Jun. 28th, 2014 01:16 am (UTC)
This was secondary fantasy based on Regency-esque England with dark alchemy undercurrents. If there was any attempt to bridge gaps between earth-type flora and fauna and the terribly non-earth-like environment, it wasn't in the first book.

Of course, if you start trying to work out what human-like intelligence looks like evolving on that kind of day schedule, you're liable to get pretty far off track from where the author was going with it. (As I think about it, there might have been something about beings from other astral planes or something, so maybe there was a fantasy-style answer to how they got there later on? Not sure-- I recently learned there are a couple more of them out now, which is probably why I was thinking about it.)

(Also, I am highly skeptical of the idea that any independently evolved ecosystem would involve anything that humans could eat. But I think that's a philosophical dispute in and of itself...)
elenbarathi
Jun. 28th, 2014 11:31 am (UTC)
Ah well, no actual science required in a tale of that genre. It's like wondering exactly how and why a stuffed giraffe ever found its way into the forgotten attics of Gormenghast Castle: one could wonder all month, and never come to any satisfactory conclusion. It's there because the author put it there, that's all.

We haven't yet found so much as a fossil cell from any extraterrestrial ecosystem, so I have no opinion about what such an ecosystem might be like. Leaving aside the question of human-like intelligence evolving, we have no basis for even guessing the likelihood of photosynthesizing plants evolving. Since our entire food-chain is based on photosynthesis, we'd probably be in trouble on a world where it didn't happen.

Still, if an ecosystem is going to evolve at all, the life-forms that comprise it have to have some way of extracting energy from their environment. So maybe we'd find that photosynthesis in some form is the common 'default' method of doing that, in which case there might be some stuff we could eat.

Even if we learned of the existence of another ecosystem, I'm highly skeptical of the odds that it would be close enough for us to learn whether or not it contained anything we could eat, and/or that could eat us. Space is big, Time is long; we're small, fragile and ephemeral - it would be nice if we did find evidence of life elsewhere before our own species has run its course, but the search is not looking very hopeful so far.

Still, one never knows.... ;~)

Edited at 2014-06-28 11:32 am (UTC)
elenbarathi
Jun. 27th, 2014 08:07 pm (UTC)
*grins* Here's me still thinking about the orbital parameters. So, how about this: the Earth-sized satellite of a gas giant in a circumbinary orbit. Except that I don't grok how such a planet could keep its atmosphere, and if the people were living underground or under domes, there wouldn't be snow. LOL, "it's always something."
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