How To Build A World From The Ground Up Week 5: Hot and Cold, Wet and Dry

So, a while ago I started the map-building series as a backlash against All Those Authors that get it Wrong, and as an attempt to prevent that happening in the future. I’ve talked about the very fundamental stuff – the underlying structure of the world, the fun you can have with hotspots and volcanos – and have developed a few rules to keep you on the right track:

– Lesson #0 in Map-Building: Always have a reason.
– Lesson #1 in Map Building: The mountains are where things crash together. So are the volancos and the earthquakes.
– Lesson #2 in Map Building: You need to have a reason for where you put things on your map. But you can pretty much invent a reason for anything.


Today, we’re going to move on to above-surface stuff, and look at the basics of climate. Two things form the fundamental basis of all climate: temperature, and precipitation. You can get hot dry climates (like deserts), hot wet climates (like rainforests), warm dry, warm wet, temperate regions that have four distinct seasons and varying rainfall in each, cold wet climates, cold dry climates, climates that are prone to snow and forms of precipitation other than plain rain.

Your plain average rain, however, isn’t really plain or average. It can be pure or acidic to various degrees, it can be cold rain or warm rain, come in torrential downpours or gently soaking drizzle. Acidic rain is found in areas of high pollution or places downwind from high-pollution areas; pure rain is often found in low population density areas, but not always, because these places can be receiving pollution from other areas. Torrential rain is most usually found in the tropics; hurricanes need the right mix of airflow and water; thunderstorms need a cold front meeting a bank of warm air; drizzle often accompanies lower temperatures; and so the list goes on.


You can get so caught up in the fascinating minutia of weather – well, at least, I could – that you forget your story is actually supposed to ever be anything more than an excuse to build a really spiffy, perfectly logical world. I don’t recommend this.
The amount of worldbuilding you DO want to do is up to you, but remember:
1) More worldbuilding makes your world seem more real.
2) Most of your worldbuilding won’t make it directly into your novel, so it can be a waste of time.
and most importantly,
3) ALL worldbuilding should serve one aim: to increase conflict in your story. If you can’t think of a way for it to increase conflict, you’re pretty much wasting your time.
I mean, sure, it’s important to know what kind of clothes your MC wears, and whether or not their society could actually legitimately make silk stockings – but this all matters a lot more to your reader if it’s in some way related to the conflict, like your MC needs to masquerade as an aristocrat from another country only can’t get her hands on the kind of stockings they wear, or something. Be creative. Make it matter.


And so to round off on climates: Do know your climate, because it will affect how your people live. More on that later. But don’t feel you need to obsess. Most climates exist in most regions of the world, with the exception being the poles and the equator. Mountain ranges or lack thereof, ocean currents and whether they are hot or cold, costalness or continentality, prevailing winds – these are the four key things that will determine your climate. But really, weather is so complicated that even now we can’t accurately predict it more than about four days out. So you know. As long as your climate is within the bounds of plausibility, most readers won’t try to kill you for them.
With one exception. Please, please, please, don’t try to make your poles hot and your equator cold for no reason better than ‘to be different’. This will result in you being hunted down and smacked over the head with some basic physics.
Why?
Because the poles are, by the very nature of a ROUND planet, further away from the sun. The equator is closest. Ergo, unless you have some sort of fancy magic field that reverses the effect of the sun, your poles will be colder and your equator hotter.
And, for the love of peace, please have a round planet unless you’re writing fantasy and have a deliberate reason for not making it so (and making it, say, a Disc carried by elephants on the back of a turtle). Gravity + spinning = round world.
Note also that it’s the TILT of the earth’s axis that gives us seasons; straight axis, no seasons. Bear that in mind when designing both round planets and especially non-round planets. If you’re not round and/or you have no tilt, will you have seasons, or will your climates be stable?

Lesson #3 in Map Building: In the middle, things are grey and you can do what you like. At the edges, things have a reason. Don’t mess with this, unless you have a very good reason.

Tune in next time for more on humanity’s favourite liquid: water!

How To Build A World From The Ground Up Week 4: And Then It Exploded

I mentioned volcanos very briefly in the last post in this series in talking about where mountains are usually formed. Often, the volcanos appear where one plate is sliding under another, forcing the upper plate even up-er, and providing a weak spot for all that yummy magma and lava to come spewing out. Yay, fire and destruction!

But there is a second way for volcanos to appear, and since it isn’t on a plate boundary, it’s kind of a neat writerly world building trick that’s almost as good as a deus ex machina for getting a volcano and/or string of islands wherever and whenever you want them.

Raise your hand if you’ve heard of Hawaii. Good. Now keep your hand up if you think you could point to it on a map. Keep your hand up if you think you could point to it on THIS map (you can find it if you click on the image to make it bigger).

Found it yet? Okay. Question. Is it on a plate boundary?

Hopefully, we agree on the location of Hawaii, and you’ve said no. Excellent. So, Hawaii is a chain of islands with both active(ish) and extinct volcanos – and it’s in the middle of nowhere, not actually near a plate boundary. How does this happen?

One word: Hot spots.

Randomly, some places of the plate will be thinner than others, allowing the magma to break through to the surface even though there’s no plate boundary in sight. This is called a hot spot. If the hot spot is under land (less likely, since the land plate is thicker than oceanic plate), you’ll get a regular volcano; if it’s underwater, you’ll either get an underwater volcano, or if its strong enough, a volcanic island.

But here’s the thing: the plates are moving, right? And some times, the hot spot isn’t caused just by the thinner crust; it’s also mysteriously caused by a literal ‘hot spot’ in the magma underneath. So when the plate moves on, rolling its way from one boundary to another, the hot spot stays behind – and a new volcano appears.

Rinse and repeat, and you get a lovely chain of volcanos/islands, each of which will become extinct as it moves away from the hot spot and a new volcano erupts behind it. So,

Lesson #2 in Map Building: You need to have a reason for where you put things on your map. But you can pretty much invent a reason for anything.

Doncha just love how rules in writing are made to be broken? πŸ˜€

How To Build A World From The Ground Up Week 3: Tall Pointy Things

To really understand how and why things work, it’s usually a pretty good idea to strip things back to their most basic level and build your way up from there. Maps are no different, if you want to get really serious. The world works in layers, and really good maps that Work will be designed around the same principles. If you want to go the full hog and draw all your layers (and drawing skills aren’t necessary, I promise), tracing paper is the medium of choice, because it allows you to stack all your layers on top of each other and see the whole depth of the map at once.

So, if you’re going to start at the very beginning (which we all know is a very good place to start O:)), where exactly is that? Not, alack, with a-b-c, or even do-re-me; rather, with transform, convergent and divergent.

Which are what? Plates, of course! Not the dinner kind, but the continental kind.

Modern science posits that the entire crust (outer surface) of the Earth is not one solid shell, but actually a whole bunch of bits of shell (plates) all forming a patchworky kind of crust. And because the centre of the Earth is full of molten rock, and molten rock is hot, and hot stuff tends to want to rise, creating convection currents as it reaches the highest point it can go and then bounces along at the top for a while getting cooler before it sinks again*, these plates move. In fact, if you were to record the Earth from outer space for a significant while and then hit fast forward, the plates fairly zoom around the surface of the world.

So where do transform, convergent and divergent come in? Well, as map builders we care about plates mostly because the edges where they touch each other have the potential to do Interesting Things. To save you the science infodump, here’s a pretty picture that explains what they are (click to embiggen):

And here’s another pretty picture that shows you where Earth’s plates are and what type of boundaries they have (click through for bigger):

One thing should hopefully stand out to you: if you think about where all the major mountain ranges of the world are, they’re often along plate boundaries. The Himalayas are where the Indian plate is bashing into the Eurasian plate. The Andes are where the Nazca plate is sliding under the South American Plate. The Alps? Middle Eastern plate smashing up into the Eurasian one. Lots of crashing = lots of mountains.
Of course, plate tectonics at the global level isn’t the only reason mountain occur; Australia boasts the Great Diving Range right down its east coast, and you can see in the images that Australia is smack bang in the middle of a plate, not anywhere near a boundary. But in general, plate boundaries are where you have the fun stuff: mountains, volcanoes, earthquakes. That sort of fun >:)
How do you employ all this with map building? Very easily. You scribble in some plates, scribble over some continents kind-of roughly based on the plate outlines (but really, you can do anything – look at Australia!), and then have fun deciding where to cause all the chaos >:) Impassable mountain ranges, volcanoes, undersea geysers, rifts and trenches both terrestrially and undersea… Bwa ha. So much potential conflict for your poor little characters.

Lesson #1 in Map Building: The mountains are where things crash together. So are the volancoes and the earthquakes.

Until next time, have fun causing chaos. Chaos #ftw! πŸ˜€

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How To Build A World From The Ground Up Week 2: Groundwork

I realise from the outset that a lot of people will decide that this post isn’t relevant to them. And maybe, to some extent, that’s true: not every writer needs to know where mountain ranges are likely to pop up, especially if you’re writing in the ‘real world’. Still, mapping has its place for everyone. For example, the kitchen of a house doesn’t usually migrate from front to back to top floor to basement; the writer obviously knows where in the house it is, and I guarantee you there was a map involved, even if said map is only in the writer’s head.

Cartography: it’s for everyone!
O:)
But I want to go a little further than that to discuss something I’ve seen a lot of lately: a blatant disregard for the actual, physical constraints of the world when creating a map. Published authors are just as guilty of this as non-published, and both are equally shudder-worthy. Sure, okay, writers don’t have to be cartographers as well – but just a little bit of thought and effort will make sure that people who know about this kind of thing don’t feel tempted to throw your book against the wall.
The example I’ll never forget is good old Robert Jordan. Regardless of what you think of his writing, his control over his plotting, and his development of female characters, you can’t escape the fact that his work is popular as anything. And in the front of all the books, all prettily drawn up, is the map of the world, which makes me want to beat my head against the wall every time I see it. Why?
Have a look at it. Note especially the coastline, and where all the rivers exit to the sea. Can you see anything wrong? Every. Single. River. exits to the sea at the very end of the land point. Every single time!
I see heads shaking in confusion. What’s wrong with that? you ask.
It’s wrong because it’s not the way things work. Water always takes the path of least resistance; a spur heading out to sea will be higher than the surrounding ground; water also causes erosion of the surrounding ground; ERGO a river will, nine times out of ten, exit to the sea in a BAY, not off the tip of a point. And if it didn’t exit into a bay initially, give it a few years to erode and it will.
Yes, if you’re writing fantasy you can in theory get away with anything – but only if you have a good reason for it. Hint: “Because it looked pretty” is not a good reason. Neither is, “Because I felt like it”, “Because that’s how it came out”, or just, “Because”. Aside from the use of magic, the physics of Robert Jordan’s world isn’t demonstrably different from our world. We are given no reason to think that physical substances shouldn’t behave there exactly as they do here; and yet, for some strange and untold reason, rivers do.
Lesson #0 in Map-Building: Always have a reason.
If you don’t have a good reason for changing the way something works, don’t. It’s as simple as that.

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How To Make Friends: An Observational Post

I’m a pretty outgoing sort of person, generally speaking. I’m comfortable talking to large groups, I’m not afraid of discussing touchy subjects, I can approach strangers to ask questions, etc etc etc. However. Put me in a room full of strangers and ask me to make small talk? Urgh.

Because the irony is, even though I’m really good with groups and formal situations (even job interviews don’t especially faze me), I’m really shy at making friends. It’s something that caused difficulties in high school because people saw me being extroverted and assumed that I wouldn’t talk to them because I was snobby, when actually I was just terrified by them πŸ˜€

It’s a topic that’s been on my mind the last few months, so I decided to make a study: What techniques did people who are good at making friends easily do that I could do too? Turns out it was a pretty easy study: I have a fairly egregious three-year-old and an extremely egregious twin*, and they made for good observation subjects. I thought this was something that might be useful to other people too, so I’m sharing my list of top techniques you can you to easily make friends πŸ˜€

1) Answer more than required.

When someone you don’t know asks a question it’s sometimes really tempting to answer it as briefly and to-the-pointedly as possible, especially if you don’t know the person. But the number one thing I observed from watching the Twinny One at work on Twitter, and then observing the outgoing three-year-old for further evidence, is to always give more than you were asked for. This isn’t about boring your audience or intruding on their time, but simply being generous with yourself in an answer. Give the other person a glimpse ofΒ you.

2) Ask questions.

Hopefully, the other person is obeying rule 1, and this will give you a lot of fodder for questions. If not, though, you’d be amazed at how far you can get through a conversation simply by running through a fairly stock list of topics: Ask about their family, their work, their home, their hobbies. Pick something from their answer and ask another question to flesh it out in more detail. Ask how they feel about these things: Do theyΒ like their job? Do they enjoy living where there do? Etc. The trick here is to not make itΒ sound like you’re just running through a list of questions, of course πŸ˜‰

3) Pretend you’re already friends.

This one takes a bit of courage, but little kids are absolutely pro at this: you walk up to someone, and treat them like they’re already your friend. Imagine you already know this person, and that they already know and like you. What would you do then? What would you say? You’d be amazed at how simply treating someone like they’re already your friend can help you to skip all the early awkwardness in a friendship relationship.

4) Have an opinion.

What? An opinion? I know. Sometimes having an opinion and stating it can be scary, and what’s more, it can drive people away. Isn’t that the opposite of making friends? Sure, but daring to have an opinion can help you to find things in common, and that’s the key: really, you’re hoping to make friends with people you have something in common with. If the other person isn’t willing to let you have your own opinion on something, then you probably don’t want them as a friend anyway. Assuming you were nice and stated your opinion nicely, of course πŸ˜‰ #NoHarrassmentZone

5) Say yes.

Three-year-old comes up to me in the playground. “Mummy, that boy has a car. I want to play with it!”
Me: “Okay. Why don’t you go ask him if you can play with him?”
Him: “Um, okay?”
With some encouragement, he toddles off. The conversation happens behind the slide where I can’t quite see, but a moment later he comes running back. “Mummy! He said yes! He said I can play with him!”

Will you be my friend? Sometimes, all it takes is asking. πŸ™‚

Any other tips you can think of to add?

Behold, MacDeath!

From classes last week, introducing students to the plot of Macbeth. Clearly I should give up my day job & become a cartooning genius O:)

Edited to Add: I have no idea why the images keep coming out sideways. They are fine when I import them, but then when I stick them in the post they go sideways and I can’t rotate them. Grrrr. Sorry. <3

photo 1

photo 2

 

photo 3

Be An Inky Awards Judge!

In recognition of the fact that there are potentially a decent handful of teens who occasionally peruse this blog, if you are Australian an aged 12 – 20, and have time to read 20 books in 3 months, you should totally consider applying to be an Inky Awards judge this year! The judging period begins in May, applications to be a judge are open now, and you can find all the details on how to apply right here.

Happy reading! :o)

Are We Self-Censoring Our Way To Dystopia?

So, this is a lesson I conducted for my seniors literally just now, and it was awesome and thinky and I wanted to share πŸ™‚ We are studying the novel Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, and in that context we are looking at the idea of censorship. You don’t have to have read the novel to get the below; the first video gives a nice summary of the high points, though the presenter speaks very fast, so I recommend doing what I did with the class and watching it twice if you’re not familiar with the novel.

Essentially the point is this: In the novel, books are banned, to the point where firemen no longer put out fires, they start them – for the sole and exclusive purpose of burning books, and sometimes the houses wherein they are contained, and sometimes the people who refuse to leave them to burn alone. Instead of books, people ‘connect’ via wall-sized screens, spending their days watching glorified soaps – alone or with others, it doesn’t really seem to make much of a difference. Much is made, in the novel, of the fact that the government enforces this regime for its own benefit – but the line that slips by at the time, only to stick in your mind and later bring everything into startling clarity, is this:

β€œIt didn’t come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God.”

The censorship started with the people. They literally censored themselves stupid. And I wonder – and many other wonder… Are we doing the same thing right now?

You Kids Are So 2014.

Watch The Truman Show with my year 9 class this week, and for the most part, we had a blast. There were the fairly predicable groans of ‘We don’t understand what’s going on!’ for the first half, but I just keep reminding them to wait and see, and to trust the story. When the Big Reveal came, they were all like OHMYGOSHTHATISSOCOOLWAITWUT?!?!?! and it was fairly awesome. I have to say, though, that my absolute FAVOURITE moment of the whole experience was the bell ringing about 10 seconds before he crashes into the sky. Those of you that have seen it will know that that’s a pretty nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat kind of moment, and when I did the maths and figured out that’s when the bell would ring, I was like MOST. EPIC. THING. EVER.

Seriously. It was awesome. I mean, come on: how often do you get an entire roomful of teenagers BEGGING to be allowed to stay back at lunch? Bwa ha ha ha ha.

However, once we’d finished the film the following day, I was struck with a depressing realisation: MAN those kids are 21st century babies.

For those of you that haven’t seen the film, know that it ends rather openly. Does he get the girl? We don’t know. Does he go on to be happy? We don’t know. What takes his place? We don’t know. There’s a whole bunch of ‘don’t know’, and WOW o.O half the class could seriously not cope. They literally spent five minutes whinging about how it didn’t tie anything up, and asking if there was a sequel, and just generally carrying on in a way that made me want to bang my head against the wall.

YOU GUYS, I told them. There isn’t SUPPOSED to be a closed, definitive ending! The open ending allows you to use your imagination, and creates a sense of hope, and opportunities, and the freedom that he’s been searching for, and it’s THEMATIC AND IT WORKS.

They were less than impressed by this, at which point I gave up and started imitating a squawking baby bird. Argh, argh, argh! Feed me! Give me the answers! Don’t make me THINK!

They were amused, but I think I adequately conveyed my point. At least they were able to concede that the open ending serves a purpose. *sigh*