MIND MELD: What Places Inspire Your Worldbuilding?
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Places. Be it distant cities, or even beyond Earth entirely, strange, unusual and beautiful places can inspire creativity and ideas for stories and novels.
Everyone thinks of New Zealand as beautiful and green, but there are places that are far different. They did film Mordor in New Zealand too!
The desert plateau right in the middle of the North Island of New Zealand is a pretty bleak, but it is full of secret rivers, volcanoes some dark and dreary, some topped by snow. Wild horses can still be found racing across the plains there. There are skree slopes that if you don’t keep running down, you’d get buried in. In other words it is beautiful and frightening…just the place for me.
It’s a place made for adventure…and consequently the final showdown in my last book of the Order, Harbinger.
I have always been fascinated with nature. So, anything with forests, deserts, rivers, oceans… inspire me. Likewise, the wilderness side-by-side urbanization also stirs up a sense of awe within me – nature taking back what’s her. Any patch of empty land with weeds … very evocative.
Slot canyons in Utah and Arizona are hauntingly beautiful to me. Geologically shaped and in the right light either a sanctuary or a womb. These structures find themselves in my stories – it’s an on-running theme, of sorts.
I am researching material on the Mediterranean at the moment, because I am planning more writing in the YA SFF world I am immersed in at the moment. I love the juxtaposition of hot and dry vs thriving vegetation. How do people survive? Do they adapt? Do they make use of what is around them.
Since I love medieval history – Mont St Michel. I don’t know why, but Mont St Michel is awe-inspiring.
And cities. The frenetic energy, the ebb and flow of movement. Earth cities have their own personalities and flavors. My urban fantasy is set in Singapore, the country I was born in. People would say it’s soulless, an artifice of concrete and steel – but it is still beautiful, in a way. I listen to the whispers, to nature slowly encroaching, slowly creeping across a field in the form of morning glory vines or in patches of coat’s button daisies (or mimosa, for that matter).
I have more and would end up rambling about them.
This is the easiest question Mind Meld has ever asked me! Because almost all of my writing projects begin with an image in my mind, I always prefer dramatic settings, and seek them out whenever I can. Starting with my Nevya series, I learned that the setting for a novel or a story can be unique and distinct, a character in its own right. Even in my historical novels, such as THE BRAHMS DECEPTION, which takes place on Earth of a hundred fifty years ago, the Tuscan setting has its own flavors of foliage, weather, geography, architecture, and language. I don’t think, if you set foot in a Tuscan hill town, that you can ever have doubts about where you are!
Nevya, though, still stands as the most inspiring setting I’ve used. I had an image in my mind of people clustered in enormous stone houses, wrapped in furs, always wearing boots, very nearly trapped indoors by the deep cold. Like Arrakis–which of course has completely opposite characteristics from Nevya–the world plays a large role in creating the plot and shaping the characters. A population is molded by its surroundings, as we see in Native American peoples. The Plains warriors were a very different culture from the Coastal tribes, and the northern Indians are distinctly different from those who lived in pueblos or cliff dwellings in the south.
On Nevya, the struggle to survive in an ice world dominates all four of the stories set there. The plot twists and turns as the characters find ways to deal with the deep cold and the endless snows, sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding. The binary star system provides the saving grace of a warm season every five years, since there has to be melt at sometime or the planet would truly be unlivable. However, as the world is created without technology, the central conceit of the fantasy–that psi-Gifted Singers are the people’s only hope–is secure.
Further, the ice world is beautiful in an austere and forbidding way, and these visual elements add depth to the narrative. I dislike long passages of description, but it’s easy to weave details of snowfall, glaciers, icicles, undimmed stars in a black sky, and so forth (watch out! you’ve got me started!) into the action. I don’t like descriptive sections to slow the movement of the story, but I do like to be able to see my characters, or other writers’ characters, against a backdrop that feels fully imagined.
I think readers want to go somewhere when they read, and perhaps speculative readers like to go further than any. Why not, when we can, send them far away, to a place as romantic or beautiful or dangerous as we can create? We have the power to take them back in time, forward into the future, whatever serves our stories. A novel is a magic carpet without limitations–we should make the most of it.
I live in London, and it’s a definite and daily inspiration. London is built on more than two thousand years of history. Its dense multilayering of eras is a constant reminder of the persistence of the past into the future, that the present (to paraphrase William Gibson) is not evenly distributed, and that the best cities are not designed but grow organically, according to their own logic, and present a deep crosshatched grain of detail and incident. It’s also a teeming multicultural city, so when you walk its streets you pass through a mosaic of other lives and other cultures. Everyone experiences in London in a different way. It is a Babel of Story.
Beyond Earth, I’m fascinated by the landscapes of Mars and the moons of the outer planets. By the images returned by robot spacecraft and landers and rovers. Mars orbiters have mapped the surface red planet to a resolution of less than a metre; the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity have sent back images that closely correspond with what a human explorer would see; the Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft, and Galileo and Cassini, have returned images of alien landscapes as exotic as the dreams of early SF. Places where volcanoes spew streams of molten sulphur; where mountains twice as high as Everest girdle a moon and may once have been a moon of that moon; where fountains of water ice jet from deep crevasses in a bright, tiny moon; where giant dunes of frozen petroleum march from hundreds of kilometres; where geysers of nitrogen gas lay calligraphic strokes across a deep-frozen icescape. We can understand the processes that have produced these and other wonders, but as yet they contain no human meaning. Their otherness is, as Baudrillard wrote of the American deserts, ‘A product of the gaze that stares out and finds nothing to reflect it.’ Like other SF writers, I was inspired to attempt to infuse these alien landscapes with human meaning: to imagine a human figure standing at (say) the edge of an ice cliff on Dione, to wonder about how she got there and where she was going, to try to get inside her head, and work out how inhabiting such a landscape would change how she thought and how she lived. Maps and images only become real when we inhabit them. In all the thousands of detailed images of Earth’s Moon returned by the Lunar Reconaissance Orbiter, the only places that feel familiar are those where the Apollo astronauts once trod.
A sense of place is really important to me – as a reader or as a writer – and I’ve had the good fortune to visit – or better still, live in – a variety of places. Inevitably they affect the way I write or the places I write about.
One of the places I keep being drawn to is the city of Haifa in Israel. It was the nearest city to where I grew up (on a small kibbutz), and it’s a locale I’m fascinated by – an old, old city with a so much history, one of the oldest continual human settlements in the world, a port city sitting on the Mediterranean that served everyone from the Phoenicians to the British army. It’s featured in several of my stories, most notably I think in “The Projected Girl”, published in Ellen Datlow’s Naked City anthology.
At the moment I’m a bit obsessed with Tel Aviv, in particular its Central Station area, which is today occupied mostly by immigrant workers from Asia and refugees from Africa. I’m working on both a picture book set in it – called It’s Hard to Be a Filipino in Hebrew – and on a mosaic novel of linked short stories set in the future of the station and following the lives of its neighborhood residents.
London is another city with a strong influence on me – it’s really at the heart of my 2010 novel, The Bookman – while I get to destroy another of my favourite cities, Paris, in the third book, The Great Game, published this year.
Vanuatu has also had a very strong influence on me, particularly as I learned to speak Bislama, the pidgin/creole language spoken on the islands there, which is now feeding constantly into my writing. I wrote several Vanuatu-set stories, and an unpublished novel, the most successful part of which – “Henry, Caesar of the Air, His Life and Times, or, The Book of Qat”, is soon to be published over the course of a week by Daily Science Fiction. I also wrote the novella Cloud Permutations, about a planet colonised by Ni-Vanuatu, which was published by PS Publishing in the UK in 2010.
Similarly, living in Laos has greatly influenced the setting and atmosphere of my novella Gorel & The Pot Bellied God (published last year by PS) and a whole slew of short stories. I wrote my novel Osama while living in Laos – in Vientiane – which is where it begins.
I also lived in South Africa and Malawi and travelled around most of Sub-Saharan Africa, so that’s informed several short stories, and places like Borneo, Siberia and Kuala Lumpur each inspired individual works.
Like I said, I’m very lucky! I don’t like to make things up if I can help it, and I was lucky enough to not have to, most of the time. I’d still like to visit the States one day though…
The night sky in what was then a dark-sky area–south Texas–was the first–the sky so clear you could sense depth in the starfield, stars beyond stars, worlds yet unknown. I had not read any science fiction yet, but that night sky pulled me in…I wanted to go see what was out there.
On Earth…mostly natural places, some very small and some very large. My husband and I did a fair amount of hiking when we were younger (and had more time!)…some in the Appalachians, some in the Smokies, in the Chisos of Big Bend, in Zion Canyon National Park in Utah. The specific places struck me with their beauty, or with a sense of…significance, I guess you’d say. They suggested other stories than their known history, incidents, moods, the kind of story that would fit that setting. They gave me something for every sense: visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile, sensorimotor. A glade on the Appalachian Trail in springtime, carpeted with violets and ferns…a tiny perfect waterfall about two miles from the glade…a colonial apple orchard in the fall with incredibly good but tiny apples. A fall day under golden leaves in the Adirondacks, a small triangle of virgin forest in West Virginia. The South Rim of the Chisos, as the birds rode the thermals up to us and sliced the wind back down. Mesa Verde. Palo Duro Canyon. The place in Colorado I spent part of two summers, near Durango, and the meadow my uncle took us kids to, on horseback. The Frio River in the Texas Hill Country. Beyond the US: the Canadian Rockies, Hudson’s Bay…too many places to name in the UK and Ireland and Australia and New Zealand. Some places I knew immediately would show up in a book someday. Others hung around in my memory, waiting their chance. Some have emerged.
National Geographic Magazine, TimeLife Books, and archeology textbooks are a great source of real-world maps of ancient cities. One of my favorites was an article on Angkor Wat with a map that showed just how big the city around it was, how extensive the system of barays and canals were around the temples. It was fascinating to imagine what it must have looked like when it was at its height.
Paintings of strange fantasy cities are inspiring too, but there is just something so cool about seeing real cities that could be a stunt-doubles for strange fantasy cities, laid out with all their roads and water systems.
I also love looking at fantasy maps. When I was in high school, one of my favorite books was “The Atlas of Fantasy” by J.B. Post. I almost wore out the library copy, and was lucky to finally find one to buy in a used bookstore. I spent a lot of time over maps of Dune, Earthsea, Middle Earth, the Witch World, Atlantis, Pern, Mongo, Pellucidar, Oz, Prydain, and places from books I’d never heard of before.
Now I also spend a lot of time on the Atlas Obscura (http://atlasobscura.com/) looking for weird landscape formations, ruins ancient and modern, and places that have mysteries or ghost stories associated with them.
As an epic fantasy writer creating secondary worlds, places here on Earth constantly inspire me. Living in the United Kingdom and regularly travelling to Europe, I can visit any number of castles and palaces from different centuries, from the ruins of Roman defences on the English ‘Saxon Shore’ onwards. My historical background gives me their political and social context while my engineer husband’s decades of military wargaming means he can explain a fortification’s practical role, a palace’s vulnerabilities and set both in the wider context of their landscape. There’s always something new to learn. Last year in the Netherlands, we were fascinated by the use of brick bastions and canals to defend towns with no local high ground to fortify or to quarry for building stone. As we travel, I also take notes and photographs of coastlines, mountains, placid vales and barren moors. These all help me visualise the places I’m writing about and tell a more vivid, convincing story.
My husband has a lifetime of practical building knowledge, having helped with family renovations of stone houses here in the Cotswolds since he was a boy. So he will see detail which I would never notice, like the time he noticed pick marks in a stone wall, chipped to give a ‘key’ for plaster to stick to. Working out the angles, he showed me where that workman had stood and how tall he had been, centuries before. Such personal aspects are vital for me since world building is as much about a place’s inhabitants, whose lives are inextricably interwoven with their environment. Displays of humble possessions and artefacts in local museums intrigue me and I like to visit old churches and cathedrals, in search of some understanding of the spiritual dimensions of their world.
It’s not only cathedrals, castles and palaces that inspire me. I love walking around historic towns, through the unimportant back streets, to see the mix of architecture recording a place’s history and seeing the ways in which buildings have been used, re-used and repurposed over the centuries to meet the changing needs of the local inhabitants. Or if all the ‘old’ has been swept away, finding out why can be just as intriguing. The outdoor museums at Blist’s Hill in England, St Fagan’s in Wales and Bunratty in Ireland have saved and rebuilt ‘unimportant’ historic buildings like cottages, cow byres, fisherman’s huts, village schools and more. Those have all given me invaluable insights when world building as well as wonderful descriptive details to use.
Looking still further back, I’ve visited the Neolithic tombs of Ireland’s Boyne Valley and similar prehistoric sites where we can only guess and grope towards an understanding of the people who lived and built there. Such uncertainty also inspires me, encouraging me to think beyond copying an established template when creating a world of my own. I go looking for inspiration in African, Indian, Middle and Far Eastern landscapes and buildings. Alas, I don’t have the budget to travel there in person, so I am indebted to National Geographic magazine, both for their amazing photographs and the writing that accompanies them.
I have two programs on my computer, Google Earth, which allows me to measure the distance between any two spots on the globe I might mention in a text, so that I might estimate travel times, and a similar set of maps of the universe, each an order of magnitude larger than the last, so that I can determine the relative position of stars in Local Interstellar Cloud, the location of Orion in the Local Arm of the galaxy, or the location and structure of the Local Group, the Virgo Cluster, or nearby Superclusters, such as Pavo-Indus or Coma. This is in case I need to know the distance and direction to the Great Attractor or the Bootes Void where no clusters of galaxies linger.
One odd reaction I notice in myself when toying with such computerized maps is a sense of desolation akin to vertigo. When scanning the Pacific or the Arctic, or even the barren areas in Patagonia, the American Midwest, of the steppes of Russia, I am impressed with how little even so little a globe as our earthly world is favorable to human life, and how much is ocean or ice or wasteland where we do not live.
The sense of vertigo becomes overpowering when contemplating the distances, measured in light-years, light-centuries and light-millennia and light-eons to nebulae and clouds and clusters and superclusters ironically called ‘local’ and ‘nearby’.
I do not tend to use locations for world building per se, though I do use them for inspiration and settings. Like an engineer, I prefer to use off the shelf technology rather than reinvent the wheel, so if I can find a real place suit my needs, one which already has verisimilitude because it has verity, I can save myself valuable writing time.
To answer the question more specifically, the places from which I drew inspiration for my books I can list, and I leave it as an exercise to the reader to determine what about each spot provoke the muses to inspire me, because in truth I cannot tell. THE GOLDEN AGE was inspired by the Pacific Northwest, both the areas where Redwoods loom, as old as any organism on earth, and hillsides stripped to Mordorian sterility by overlogging. LAST GUARDIAN OF EVERNESS was inspired by Maine. As a child of the drab gray and brown landscapes of Southern California, the place names of my youth were Spanish and recent, so to me the Eastern Seaboard, whose placenames are English and archaic, hold a quaint old world flavor. ORPHANS OF CHAOS was both set in Cornwall and inspired by it, albeit I had great fun looking up the history of certain unclaimed or abandoned islands in the Pacific for the scenes in TITANS OF CHAOS.
In general, it is the names of the places, or their historic character, which inspire me, rather than the look and feel of them. My current work in progress, for example, is inspired by the wonderful names of locations such as Santa Maria de las Nieves (‘Our Lady of the Snows’) now called Nevis in the Leeward Islands of the Caribbean, or the island of Yap in Micronesia, or Desolation Island far south of where civilized men dare go.
An as-yet-unwritten sequel to ORPHANS OF CHAOS takes place in Cumberland Gap, because this locale was once the gateway to the west, and, as all gateways, attracted trade and hence attracted the rich. Mansions were erected there, where all the rail lines passed through. Then the automobile and the aeroplane changed the way Americans traveled, and the ocean of wealth ebbed. A friend of my student days once rented the top floor of a mansion for less than I paid for a two room apartment in New York. Some of his clients were so poor that he was paid in chickens. He was so poor he was glad for the meal. I have decided that the gateway to the grim realm of Hades is in that location, guarded by a small sect of Amishmen who inscribe hexes on their barns to keep the shades of the dead at bay.
My favorite name for a location that I used in a book is the Devil’s Den caves in Fancy Gap, Virginia. A place with such a poetical name compelled me to use it as the site of a cryonic ultralongterm hibernation facility, set, as all cryonic ultralongterm hibernation facilities no doubt one day will be, with booby traps and false passages even as the tombs of the pharaohs, and inscribed with dire warnings in the languages of many eras of the curse of waking the slumbering dead.
Valparaiso, a name so fine that many a town on Earth bears it, for it means the valley of paradise, will be the setting of a work yet untitled. I will use the Valparaiso in Argentina, not only for its graveyard of Englishmen who died there during a world war, but for its unique funicular train system – for otherwise I cannot use the word ‘funicular’. Ah, but the question of which words inspire world building is a separate issue, and here I speak only of which places on map, or beyond the edges of maps, inspire me. Astronomical places I always attempt to set in some real part of the sky, where there are enough fascinating things that I need not invent them.
The Pistol Star, for example, is a blue hypergiant (not a word I invented!) and is one of the most luminous known stars in the Milky Way. It made a cameo appearance in NULL-A CONTINUUM is a real star, and as absurdly bright as there depicted.
So, too, in the short story ‘The Far End of History’ (set in the background of THE GOLDEN AGE) appearing in the anthology NEW SPACE OPERA 2 the violently unstable double star Eta Carina, doomed to ignite not just into a nova or supernova, but into what astronomers dubbed a ‘hypernova’ (also not a word I invented!)
The Diamond Star V886 Centauri, whose core of degenerate carbon matter is described by scientists as ‘a diamond of 10 billion trillion trillion carets’ appears as the McGuffin in my current novel COUNT TO A TRILLION. One irate purist vowed he would never read my work because of the astronomical inaccuracy of such a claim. (Despite that I had clearly said that the astounding claim was being made by scientists, not by science fictioneers.)
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