Tuesday, August 9, 2011

World Building: Geography by Sabrina Klein

Geography when creating a world…

This quote sticks with me every time I create a fantastical landscape, and I believe that word for word it is especially true in this case. “The reader will suspend disbelief-he won’t suspend common sense.” The quote comes from David Gerrold’s Worlds of Wonder. I believe it to be an essential law because people take for granted about what they know in regards to landscape. If in a non-magical setting I surround an icy plain with a hot sandy desert, you’re going to call me nuts. Your suspension of disbelief-gone. Yet, if in that description I explain the icy plain is at an elevation is 20,000 feet above sea level, and below it is the sandy desert now your brain is okay, mostly. Previously I have written about creating cultures for worlds in deserts, taigas, ocean and fresh water shores, ocean deeps, grasslands, woodlands, rivers, lakes, and jungles. Each time I took the ecology apart by the aspects of culture. What I did not do was talk about how they work together themselves as landscapes.

Ecology depends on many things; geology, biology, & climatology to start with, and how these things fit together to make a system. When you create, a geography you need to thinks about several things. Can these places exist near each other? Deserts can exist next to the sea yet when the woodlands meet the sea directly they become something else with different rules- a mangrove. The nature of our planet has come up with some bizarre things to make things work together. Research it before you decide to make your own rules. You might be surprised they might exist, and require only a bit of twisting for your purposes. Generally, unless you have come up with a way to explain otherwise in logical means, obey the science humans know. I know it’s boring, but unless you intend on making up new logic and spending eternity explaining-it’s simpler. You spend more time writing and less time worldbuilding. If you have reasons-logical ones or fantastical ones offer up an explanation, it will help suspend the disbelief. Just be careful not to push too far. People are accepting of fantastical creatures, but the places they exist are where the suspension of disbelief in my experience can be more fragile. This is not always the case, try it the worst you’ll have is a learning experience, and those are never a waste.

Geography is about many things. For world-builders, it is how we make the map. First, you need to make the map so that not just you can understand it. There are four essentials to EVERY MAP; title, a legend or key, north arrow, & scale. Title, you have to have it, and it tells people what the map represents. Legends, A.K.A. a key that explains the symbols on your map, if ˄ is used for mountains then put it in a box somewhere on the map and tell people that ˄ is mountains. If I is used for forests, then label it in the legend as such. Otherwise, when other people look at your map they will not understand it. Third, directional compasses are more than a convenience. Most people who make maps for a living will tell you labeling North is a good thing. (North doesn’t have to always point up. You can also use other directions as long as one of them is labeled.) Without a North arrow, there is no orientation for the user. Fifth, Scale is a fabulous thing. We are all familiar with the annoying phrase…”are we there yet?” Without scale you would not be able to know that 10 miles away is you destination and the answer after going 200 miles is, almost. Knowing how large the place you’re describing is essential. You may know how big it is, but does someone else? For example below is another map.


For a moment look at it, and think about what it is. Where is it? If I were to tell you, you were in the middle and you needed to get to the sea. Even more frustrating you have no real idea, which is water green, or brown. This is why you need a Key. Would you know which way to go? Would you be able to tell anything without the North arrow? No. It is missing. Suppose I tell you that up is actually down and North is at the bottom of the map? It might help, but without more information, you’re probably not going to find your way. From the middle of the map, it’s about 300 miles to the sea. Nevertheless, without knowing the scale of the map you still don’t know what direction. Now if it just had a title that would explain volumes. If I call the map, ‘Central Confederate States 1864’ does that help. Maybe, actually probably.

However, if I redo the map as below it becomes much clearer with the Title, North arrow, Key/Legend, & scale. Even though the title implies historic value, you now know where to go if you’re a resident of the US. The only thing that I would do more is label the Gulf of Mexico, and I would do that if my audience did not know the US. Otherwise, it is unnecessary.


Now that we have discussed the elements of a map, what about the ecology of the map? Truly, that is up to you. Remember to logically place ecologies next to each other, or to use geographic boundaries such as; water, elevation (up or down), or a fantastical approach is always acceptable as long as it comes with an explanation. When creating a map don’t attempt to put too much information onto one map. Make a line map of the area and then do a map of political boundaries and one of geological and ecological information. They can be combined easily later. However, seeing them separate sometimes brings a perspective when you are starting out. Combined them later, and you will find decisions about what is necessary and is not easier to communicate, and your map will appear much more elegant. Maps are pictures and pictures speak a thousand words, but the four elements of the map; title, legend, scale, directional arrow are necessary for accurate communication.

Authors have used maps to create their worlds. Piers Anthony used the state of Florida. Kevin Simbieda used the whole planet, and Terry Brooks used the Pacific North-west. Many people have used our world as a basis for theirs. If you don’t know where to begin think about what kind of place your story is set in. What is the land around like? Maybe woods, if so what type? Woodlands can exist in tropics, swamps, taigas, and temperate climates. Then if you’re at a loss for what to draw go to the library, get the biggest most used atlas they have, and look for places on earth you know have these places. When you find one, turn the map look at it from another angle. Places often don’t look like what they are without that sacred North orientation. Often times I have found inspiration in doing so. The map of the landscape of my world started on a map of central Asia.

Sources that will help you create a believable ecology include the following or at least I have found them useful;

• Biomes of the Earth series are awesome. These books are textbooks for young people, and older editions are available on amazon ranging from .47 cents to 18 dollars used last time I checked. There are several in the series; Taiga 0816053294, Lakes and rivers 0816053286, Oceans, Tundra 0816053251, Grasslands 0816053235, Temperate Forests 0816053219, Wetlands, Tropical Forests 0816053227, Agricultural and Urban areas 081605326X, those are the individual ones that I could find. Older editions will serve you just as well as the new ones. The set I am familiar with was from 2006. Check your library or interlibrary loan. Here is the ISBN for the set; which is unfortunately expensive about $395.00 0816053197. So if you are interested look for older editions. For the most part, they will have what you need.

• Other books that might be of use are the DK publishing series. These are absolutely awe inspiring. The Smithsonian books are often the same if you look on the inside.

o Universe 0756636701
o Earth 0756661153
o Oceans 0756636922
o Animals 0756616344

Also, check out this post by Paul Genesse on World Building, Geography

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