How Geography Helps Writers With Worldbuilding

So… we’re just going to pretend that I haven’t been gone since Christmas, okay? It’s been quite a few semesters, and I am just glad to be back with everyone here in the blogosphere. (Believe it or not, I actually enjoy writing on the internet.) And that’s all we’re going to say about it.

Get it? Got it? Good. Now for the post.

My Post

As some of you may know from my incessant twitter complaining, the bulk of my time recently has been devoted to college. (Final semester, guys—whoop whoop.) As an education major, I was dragged kicking and screaming into needed to take a geography class, because apparently a teacher should know that Taiwan is in Asia, not southern Africa. *cringe*

Now, I thought I didn’t like geography that much. My expectations consisted of stuffy maps, no interesting historical facts, and textbooks that talk of nothing but global warming (don’t @ me). And while all that was true to an extent, I was surprised to discover that geography is genuinely useful… for worldbuilding?

What does geography have to do with worldbuilding?

Most writers probably know this (or could figure it out), but worldbuilding is exactly what it sounds like—building a miniature world so your characters have somewhere to live. It can involve drawing population maps, researching real-world cultures, inventing languages, writing treatises on political history, building 3D models of city streets… well, the list goes on because worldbuilding is never truly complete.

This is where geography comes in. See, geography is basically all of the above research categories organized into one meta-genre. So, while drifting in and out of the four-page zone, I found myself wondering, “If this stuff is useful for geographers in the real world, and writers are fake-world geographers, shouldn’t I be able to use this for building my own worlds?”

Grab your fancy gel pens and a notebook, or pull up the encyclopædia I told you to make all those years ago. We’re going to be geographers for a day. To do that, we’ll need to think like geographers: using the five categories or “themes” of geography.

Theme #1: Region

Key questions: What makes it a region? How cohesive is it? Where are the boundaries? How does it complement (or compete with) the other regions around it?

Region is mainly about drawing circles on maps. You’ll rarely find a real-world map with just a bunch of castles scattered here and there with nothing but miles of beaten track in between (looking at you, younger self); people stick together and develop their towns in an outward pattern.

Also remember that region can be formal or functional. A formal region is what a region looks like on the map; a functional region is how the people who live there interact with each other. Formally, Dallas and Fort Worth are two different regional places on a map, but in functionally, the two cities work together so closely that we call the resulting metroplex DFW. Ask yourself what the differences are between what the map says and what the world actually looks like.

If you don’t know what this is… okay, I’ll still be your friend, I guess. [credit]

Think about where people would naturally choose to live. If your sci-fi culture lives on a mountain range, farmers can only grow crops below a certain altitude and on one side of the mountains due to the rain shadow effect. On the other hand, maybe the more scientific people in the culture have figured out how to build homes and farms farther up on the hills using some fancy irrigation methods. Or maybe a specific type of alien race can eat a type of food that only grows in high altitudes. How would that affect the way the town works?

Theme #2: Location

Key questions: Where is it located on a map? How does that location affect its daily functioning?

As with region, you can describe Location as either absolute or relative. Absolute location is about address, latitude, and longitude; relative location is more about the landmarks and other locations you use to find a place (“the restaurant is three blocks down Main Street, to the left of the hotel”).

Once you know where a given area is located relative to its neighbors, you can begin answering other important worldbuilding questions. So what if Lake-town doesn’t have enough arable land to grow its own vineyards? It’s located so close to the rich soil of Mirkwood, maybe the townsfolk can buy wine from the wood-elves. Though I don’t suppose something like that is ultimately important for Bilbo’s adventure, is it?

Theme #3: Place

Key questions: What makes it unique? What is most apparent or memorable about the culture?

Exhibit A: Wakanda.

What makes a house a home? To geographers, it’s Place. Here’s where you can get fancy with culture, languages, and wars. Different cultures have different collective personalities and values (some people have even tried to give each country a Myers-Briggs type). Sometimes these traits appear in the physical landscape as well as the human one. You can guess at the different personalities of the Wakandan capital and countryside just by looking at the buildings (or lack thereof).

Exhibit B: also Wakanda.

A good question to ask about Place is “How could someone tell what region my character is from?” One of my sneakier characters knows the rigid fashion standards of his country, so he can identify people’s social status just by looking at the length of their skirts or coats. A soldier character could discriminate against people who have a certain accent because he associates them with the space pirates who killed his father. A queen from an absolute monarchical country may be completely out of her element when she visits a more parliamentary-style country.

I could go on, but you get the picture. Place is basically what makes your fake people seem like real people.

Theme #4: Movement

Key questions: How does it work logistically? Is there sufficient transportation for goods, money, and people? How connected is it to the rest of the world?

A better word (in meine humble opinion) for Movement would be connectivity. If you want to know anything about how a country works on a day-to-day basis, you need to ask how the people move things through and out of the region: armies, crops, tourists, waste, and everything else.

This may sound boring, but Movement is actually a great source of inspiration for subplots. If your kickbutt assassin gal wants to overthrow a 1760s-style government, all she needs to do is hack the mail system; without a good communication infrastructure, the officials can’t get diddly crap done. If your villain lives in an affluent city, he probably has access to better transportation to and from neighboring cities than your Chosen One from a tiny subsistence-farming town does. And if your rebellion is based in a colony of an empire, the emperor had better have a fast highway or canal to get his armies there in case of an uprising.

Thanks to Location, we now know how hard it is to make the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs. (credit)

Theme #5: Human-environment interaction

Key questions: What is the natural environment like? How do the people and environment impact each other on a daily basis? How do the people manage their natural resources?

Regardless of what other differences might exist, every inhabited place has something in common: it’s made out of humans (or elves, or Twi’lek) and environment that have to interact with each other. And this doesn’t have to be boring or political.

First you need to ask: How have the people changed their natural environment (for better as well as for worse, ya hippies)? When settling in a new area, people usually cut down trees for timber, which can lead to soil erosion, a lack of good farmland, and wildlife emigration. On the other hand, maybe a resilient group of settlers have learned how to irrigate the desert plains. How does that impact the economy?

But don’t stop there. This interaction is a two-way street, so now you need to ask: How has the environment impacted the way people live? People who live on the frigid tundra icecaps are naturally going to build different kinds of houses and tools from those of people who live on tropical coasts. In a chilly environment, waterways are going to freeze over and close during some months of the year, meaning people need to get all their seaborne trading done during the warm months. And of course, we already talked about mountains and farming under Region.

Tommy Rall, Jeff Richards, and Russ Tamblyn in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)

Most of this movie depends on an avalanche that was Totally, Definitely An Accident. (credit)

That’s all I’ve got, folks.

I never thought I’d say this, but geography can be fun. Use your imagination and see what you come up with. The more you build your world, the more real and amazing it will become.

Did you have any brilliant flashes of inspiration? Please tell me some of your worldbuilding ideas in the comments! 

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What Happened This Semester

 bbc sherlock fave not dead notdead GIF

Do I just disappear so I can use the wealth of Sherlock gifs available in this glorious age of information?

No. I swear I wouldn’t do that to you, kids. But… the Sherlock gifs are a plus.

Anyway, I’m back, so hello! Sorry for disappearing, and you’re welcome for turning back up. I realize we haven’t talked in awhile, so here are a few things just to update you on my life in the last… *checks* semester. Yikes.

I accomplished a lot of Very Important Tasks.

Such as…

  • Finishing my second-to-last semester of college. *bows to applause* Yes, yes, thank you.
  • Writing a parody of The Phantom Menace (yes, I’m playing Qui-Gon, no, you may not see the script).
  • Watching Star Wars and the original Wrath of Khan for the first time. Yes, I liked the prequels better than the originals, and yes, I liked Benedict Cumberbatch better than Ricardo Montalban. Please don’t eat me.
  • Watching The Greatest Showman, which I loved, and The Last Jedi, which… well, I still don’t know what I think about it.
  • Reading the Revenge of the Sith novelization. I’m officially prequel trash, I guess.
  • Dyeing my hair temporarily auburn (which I’m totally going to do again, btw).
  • Finally reading A Picture of Dorian Grey and the first two Mistborn books (ugh, feels).
  • Reaching 20,000 words in my NaNo project and 21,000 in my other super-secret project.
  • Learning how to live with and (eventually) overcome depression and anxiety.
  • Realizing in a much deeper way just how much I need God and realizing just how much He loves me, even when I don’t believe it.

Honestly, so much happened that I’m having trouble figuring out how to put the last few months into one post. So for now, the list will have to do, and I’ll share a bit more in the blog posts to come.

Speaking of writing, I started my other novel.

And I suppose I haven’t actually… told you anything about it yet, have I?

bilbo GIF

Well, let’s remedy that. Have another list.

  • The working title is The Flower Assassin. 
  • It is about a) a depressed INTJ assassin, b) his bossy older sister, c) a flirty intern, and d) a lonely governor who are all thrown by fate (ie, a cynical author) into one another’s lives.
  • The scene outline is currently 20 pages long. (I’m a planner, okay?)
  • It is a spec fic (the specifics of setting are still tbd) that involves murder, infinite sadness, and kissing.
  • There are Pinterest boards for it here.
  • The story in my head is awesome, and frankly I’m terrified that I won’t be able to do it justice. (But that won’t stop me from trying.)

And I guess that’s it for now. I really am sorry for disappearing, guys. I’ll try to do better now that I actually have brainpower and a life outside of school. I have a lot of good ideas for blog posts… they just have to get written.

Deus vult, I’ll see y’all next week. Until then, happy writing or reading or whatever you do.

lego batman GIF

Why We Hate Our Old Writing (and how to stop)

Have you ever noticed that your old writing is really bad?

Like, really bad?

Yeah, so have I. I shudder at the idea of people I know personally reading my books. Whenever I see a new review on Goodreads, I’m afraid of what people will say. What if readers judge me? What if they never read my books again?? What if I was never supposed to publish a book at all??? It’s ridiculous, of course, but from what I’ve seen, most other young authors have the same paralyzing fear. It really needs a name. Lateral Author Syndrome, maybe?

Well, here’s my unfortunate thesis: Your old writing will always seem awful to you, and that’s a sign you’re doing it right. Why? Because it shows you’re growing as an author. You grow as an author because you grow as a person. It’s inevitable! As long as you’re writing honestly, you’ll automatically become a better writer as you experience life.

But that’s a bit vague, isn’t it? We always talk about “writing honestly” and allowing ourselves to “grow as writers,” but what do those #writerslife cliches really mean?

Glad you asked. That’s what we’re talking about today.

A Brief History of a Teen Author

Most teen authors have the same (or similar) story, so let’s take a look at *shudder* my old books.

Son of Ren seems pretty awful to me right now, and that’s probably because I wrote most of it between the ages of 15 and 16, when I was still technically a kid. (Yeah, a kid who can stop a bus with their bare hands, but still a kid.) My characters were adults grappling with adult issues like political change and parent/adult-child conflict, and though I did my best to tackle them, I couldn’t fully identify with those characters. I just hadn’t experienced a whole lot of their world.

Then, at age 17, I wrote Alen’s War, which seems slightly less awful. I’ve never fought a war or led a rebellion. I’ve never so much as been on a pirate ship, let alone set one on fire. But I had wrestled a bit with my own fears and had seen other people fighting theirs, and that provided a bridge for me to identify with my characters and the issues they faced. My real life affected the fictional world I’d created. I learned to empathize with the characters on the page by letting them be real people, and the story was that much better for it.

Now, age 19, I have two main projects that have a lot in common- with each other and with me. They both feature main characters with severe depression, and they both deal with many of the heavy emotional issues I’m trying to deal with in real life. And to be honest, it can be hard to write about things that are so personal to me, but I have to. I know this story needs told because other people are struggling with the same issues. For that reason, the story becomes more and more real.

Same old story, right? Teenage authors almost always grow in their writing at lightning-fast speeds, and their books are here to document those changes. And that is not a bad thing. The fact that you realize that your old work could be better shows that you understand what writing is all about: putting a little bit of life down on a page.

Getting Under Readers’ Skin

This is what it means to “write honestly.” Real life bleeds into the words on a page. Even what seems like escapist fantasy can teach us something about the real world when the author writes honestly. It’s why geeks love utterly ridiculous stories like Captain America or Star Wars; even though the plots are fake, the people are real.

Here’s what I really want you to remember: Don’t be ashamed of your old writing, because it’s better than you think. As I’ve said before, it’s a picture of you when you wrote it. If you don’t believe me, ask the people who are reading them right now; the stories you wrote are still having an impact.

While you are worried that someone is annoyed by your incomplete worldbuilding, a reader is overjoyed that you took a chance to explore the evils of racism and the heroes who fought against it. While you’re over here stressing about your head-hopping in that one scene, a reader can breathe with relief because you gave them hope in their struggle with anxiety. While you’re agonizing over the trees, the readers are refreshed to see the forest. 

Age 16, I didn’t understand monarchical political shifts, but I did understand Elkay’s passion for doing something big, and I knew all too well how arrogance can destroy that big something. Age 17, I’d never grappled with a nationwide revolution, but like Alen, I had fought my own wars with perfectionism and forgiveness. So those are the things I wrote about, and those are the things that readers loved.

Raw, honest bits of life are what impacts readers. Hardly anybody cares about your overuse of speaker tags or your flat secondary characters, especially when they know you were pretty young when you wrote the book. (Usually, if they mention those things in a book review, they’re giving you some pointers for next time.) Readers remember how you impacted their emotions, and if your book makes them feel like they’re on a journey with real people and real problems, you’ve done your job.

So say the readers:

13 Contradictions Only True Book Lovers Understand

Happy Labor Day. And, as we like to say, happy writing.

27 Things I Accidentally Did This School Term

(desperately searches for a gif that suits the insanity of this semester) (oh there’s one) (it’s Sherlock even better)

Miracles do happen. I’m alive, people!

Granted, I am 1000% ready for the summer. I’ve got a bunch of fun plans for the next few (i.e. million) blog posts. In the meantime, though, I’m just trying to recover from the last two months of my life. You would not believe the insanity if I tried to describe them. However, insanity is sometimes better communicated in a list format, which is why I’m going to tell you about it in a list of 27 things I randomly did this semester without ever planning to do them.

So in case you ever wanted to know, here’s why I disappeared over the last two months. Not a thinking post, just a rant to say hello and hopefully make someone laugh. I did some good things as well as some not-so-wise things. Learn from my mistakes and copy the things I did right, and hopefully you will survive your junior year as well. (Maybe.)

In the past half-semester of school, I:

  1. Signed up for five courses in eight weeks.

  2. Subsequently learned that you’re only supposed to take two or three courses in eight weeks.

  3. Tested the “you need at least eight hours of sleep in order to function normally” hypothesis. It is in fact true.

  4. Learned how to bluff my way through a paper.

  5. Wrote a total of 28 essays (some shorter, some longer, there is no in between).

  6. Got really, really good at finding scholarly sources for papers.

  7. Mastered the skill of citing those sources in multiple formats in my sleep.

  8. Tweeted a lot about #college and #studentlife. (Still did not learn how to use Facebook.)

  9. Concluded that I go to college with a bunch of Andersons.

  10. Speaking of Anderson,  finally sat down and watched Sherlock. 

  11. Became a full-fledged & slightly insane Sherlockian (see also: gif).

  12. Also watched Doctor Strange way more often than I should have.

  13. Perplexedly tried to figure out why most people I talked to hate Doctor Strange.

  14. Basically watched any movie that has Benedict Cumberbatch as a sarcastic jerk.

  15. Wrote parodies for Doctor Strange and Rogue One.

  16. Perfected an impression of Mads Mikkelsen for aforementioned parodies.

  17. Discovered just how hard it is for American me to learn a Danish accent.

  18. Did not do any decent filming- we must hold out until the summer. Sigh…

  19. Re-wired yet another old draft of a novel.

  20. Turned that novel into a fantasy thriller turned romance novel turned Greek tragedy turned… well, I don’t really know what it is yet, but it’s cool.

  21. Invented an eccentric INTP who may will probably turn out to be an antagonist.

  22. Also invented his twin ESFJ sister who is the sweetest little cinnamon roll that ever managed a kingdom.

  23. Let my characters start another war. They’re really good at that.

  24. Published two whole blog posts (although I admit one of those was written beforehand).

  25. Promised myself I would take off the summer and resisted any and all attempts by my college to get me to come back.

  26. Made a resolution to take violin lessons.

  27. Ranted about all of it on my blog.

So that was the last few months of school for me. Needless to say, I’m just glad the semester is over, and I plan to have a lot of fun during the next one.

Happy summer, kids.

Doctor Strange || Coat and Cloak:

A New Direction (not a joke)

Hello, people of various cities, countries, and alternate-universes who congregate on my little corner of the internet.

Because

Because I couldn’t find the Matt Meese version.

Yes, of course, you say. You always miss me. But why is this post up on Sunday? I never post on Sunday. It’s a miracle if I even post on Monday. But I’m here early because it’s time for an announcement. To cut to the chase: my blog is going a new direction, and I figured I would take the time to tell you all about it before randomness starts popping up. (Surprise.)

A little backstory: As some of you may know, my other site, A Heart Devoted, is leaving the internet for good, and I’ll be posting those sorts of things here now. For those of you who haven’t heard yet: hitherto I and several other girls have written for a Christian blog, but lately we’ve been quite busy with a little thing called life, so we decided to consolidate that blog with our personal sites.

So, while I’m at it, I’ve decided to expand the scope of this blog to include lots of things. Videos (and vodcast, hopefully), literature, philosophy, maybe even economics… all of it will be here alongside the writing stuff. Basically you get a peek into whatever is on my mind every week.

Hence, the new tagline: Inside the mind of a sheltered Christian writer. Because that’s what haters call me, so I’ve decided to roll with it. It worked for Yankee Doodle, didn’t it?

Lastly, a disclaimer for the sake of everyone’s sanity. I’m not saying that non-Christians and others who disagree with me aren’t welcome here anymore. Far from it, anybody of any belief system can come here and talk about reality and such, as long as you’re willing to be courteous to everyone else. However, I want to be fair: know that I can’t slow down and explain all the relevant tenets of Christianity and dispel all possible misconceptions before I start the actual discussion. (My posts are way too long as it is.) So if you really want to gain something out of my posts without being offended, just walk around in my shoes while you read my stuff, and if something seems off, give me the benefit of the doubt. Get it? Got it? Good.

So welcome to the new blog. I look forward to talking with you.

The Book-Room Challenge

Hey, kids, guess what? I’m not actually dead! It just happens that I’ve been tagged by not one, but two of my favorite bloggers in an already-busy month. But… of all the kinds of busy, this is the bestistest. This week, we’re just going to start with the one, but come back next week because we’ll have some more awesome stuff.

the-book-room-challengeFirst, the one and only Blank Mastermind genius (thank you, writefury!) has tagged me for the Book-Room Challenge, which will be fairly self-explanatory.

We have an order of events tonight. First of all, the rules.

  1. Write 3 of your own books as rooms. They can be finished, works in progress, or even just ideas, but they have to be your own.
  2. Write 1 of your favorite books to read as a room.
  3. Tag 5 other people.

Then the tag. I had a little trouble deciding what approach to take; should I write the rooms as if they were from palaces and villages in fantasy worlds, or should I write more modern rooms with fantastical flavor? I was up for a challenge, so I chose the latter.

Son of Ren

A foyer in an old Victorian house. The floor is marble, with an old Saxon tapestry as a rug. Several mahogany chairs line the blue walls, and several white Hellenic statues line the far wall. One stained glass window is over the door, and overhead hangs a chandelier with lit candles. Smells like winter and history books.

Alen’s War

A boathouse by a river. An old sword from the Civil War hangs above the doorway. Several raincoats hang on pegs and boots sit on the worn pinewood floor. Two floor-to-ceiling windows let in the grey morning light. There are no chairs, but a large wooden table is at the center with some books on it, and the whitewashed walls are covered with old maps, navigation charts, and flags, and at the far end of the room hangs a huge painting of a royal flagship.

Aaaaand…. I didn’t plan to tell everyone about this project quite yet, but now is as good a time as any other. I am writing a speculative/scifi/dystopian novel. Yes, it will probably be finished within the next five years. No, you may not read it yet. Thank you for asking. Its working title is…

Monsters Becoming

A dark, sad living room splashed in golden light. The walls are dark blue-grey and the floor is faded tile, but it’s brightened by yellow lamps, a soft rug, and a warm fireplace that smells like burnt coffee. The walls are decorated with what looks at first like paper chains, but are really metal chains painted bright colors.

Mismatched chairs surround the fire: several metal folding ones with cartoon character blankets, one kitchen chair with a quilt-pattern cushion, and a recliner with a laptop bag sitting beside it. Several important-looking folders are stacked on the table next to a box of crayons.

King Richard III

Because it’s the only Shakespeare play I really enjoyed. (Lately I’m watching The Hollow Crown version and loving it- maybe I’ll talk about that later this month.)

A small office/meeting room. The floor is black carpet with red and white geometric shapes. One wall is covered with a bookshelf with Latin-sounding books; another has a huge whiteboard scribbled over with charts and lists of names. At the center of the room stands an oaken table, and in the middle is an old faded Risk board game.

Now for the tagging of bloggers, which is where I usually break the rules. Not on purpose- I’m just can’t always find people who haven’t already been tagged. This time, though, I might be able to get by…

And there you have it. That’s all for now, so enjoy another October week complete with hot cocoa and rich descriptions. 🙂