Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Fantasy Foliage Dilemma

I have been plotting a new fantasy novel lately, and have run into a familiar dilemma. In describing the natural environment, do I fall back on the typical earthly descriptions i.e. elms, oaks, willows etc or do I create a completely new ecology?

This is a kind of a double dilemma for me because I grew up in the southern hemisphere with wattles, wallum heath, eucalypt forest and saltbush. If I described all these in my fantasy book it would look weird to people who recognised them and would probably just be bizarre to readers from other climates.

The other problem I have is that although I am more than comfortable using my own native flora and fauna in urban fantasy and contemporary fantasy, it does not have a classic fantasy feel to me. All the fantasy and heroic fantasy fiction that I have really enjoyed has drawn the setting from Europe and the northern hemisphere, with oak groves, willows and aspens etc.

Yet as I writer I do not want to just recreate this northern setting, despite how familiar it feels. So am I stuck. If I go the route of creating a completely new ecology, I may have to sacrifice some of the evocative natural descriptions I love simply because I did not have the extra few months of free time needed to create all the name lists and really dream it all up properly.

As it is, I will probably go for an invented ecology, probably sprinkled with a few familiar terms.

How do you handle the Fantasy Foliage Dilemma?

27 comments:

Jim McCoy said...

I really just go with the things that occur naturally in nature in the real world for the most part. The only time I would go for new types of flora or fauna is if I felt it to be an important part of the plot and/or I thought that it was of massive importance to create an alien environment for some reason. The Star Trek and Star Wars universes both come to mind because in creating other planets, it's important to make them look otherworldy. Even then though, both universes tend to return to familiar territory quite frequently once it's created.

I also think there's a danger here. Do you really want your readers distracted by your new flora or do you want them paying attention to your characters? If you spend too much time describing new types of plants you could end up losing your story.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Jim. The distraction factor is a good point. I guess I feel that if I am portraying a new Fantasy world, I have an obligation to make it seem diffent. It's a tough balance though - and I often end up making the story entry too dense for most readers, even when I par it back.

MataPam said...

As Jim said, alien planets need alien vegetation. Fantasy probably needs embellished Earth plants, at the most. Maybe a few that can't live outside their native environment that includes background magic. Or plants that changed a bit with magic.

The degree of differences between normal and fantasy plants and animals pretty much depends on how much you want to do, and how much your plot needs any oddity.

As for the regional vegetation to use? Think about it from an evolutionary POV. Is this area isolated from other, as on Earth, or are there ways that the plants and animals could have migrated?

It will also depend on what your POV character's background is. An Australian might notice the normal oaks almost as much as he'd notice the magical. Or if he's been away from Australia for a long time, his attention might be rivited to his first smell of ecucalyptus in three decades, and he wouldn't notice any thing else.

All of which is a long winded way of saying "Do it however you want."

I had a great time inventing a totally fictional Martian Biota. But then, I tend to get carried away with world building, to the detriment of getting on with the story.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Matapam. I guess my dilemma is that I don't feel comfortable using the earth biota - the northern hemisphere stuff is familiar but somehow wrong for most of my stories (except my novel set in iron age Ireland of course), whereas my local flora seems too prosaic.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Good point, Chris.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Rowena. I've never really been able to solve this one.

Brendan said...

Mix and Match. No reason why it has to be one or the other and if you include a bit of both the scenes feel just that touch exotic for everyone.

Mike said...

Prosaic for who? One of the points that a friend rubbed my nose in recently was that while after (that many?) years in Japan, many things are prosaic or commonplace to me, for many people from other parts of the world, they are still pretty exotic.

Incidentally, have you read Mirabele by Janet Kagan or some of Lois McMaster Bujold's Barrayar settings? I'm thinking of the mixing of exotic and commonplace that both of them used. Depending on what your fantasy background is, you might have a similar mix of ordinary and exotic? I think in some ways a mixture makes them both more visible -- we notice the oddball one, and then we look more closely at that prosaic oak or whatever, seeing it afresh.

MataPam said...

f you're unfamiliar with the native vegetation of your story setting, it might be well to slightly warp them toward a fantasy version. That way, any mistakes you make, the readers will just assume you did it on purpose. ;)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post, Chris. Your dilemma sums mine up since I did the first draft of my first novel in November with NaNoWriMo. I've scheduled myself to do a second draft in February, and I've been considering how to tackle this problem.

It's a sf novel of a lost colony world. Now, I do get the benefit of the humans having chosen this planet since it was "Earth-like." But there need to be variations. World-building is not my forte, so I'm really struggling with how familiar to make it, what natural world suits my needs, and how to weave this all into my story. Ugg.

My husband says he would find this the most fun part, the creating the world to his amusement. Not me. I want to get to the story. But I do want it to sound alien yet real.

I think what I've settled on is a basic Earth biota like trees and grass, but different. For instance, this planet has trees big enough to hold cities in them. Then I have to create the minute differences to support humans living there.

My problem is that it all seems to link to a bigger problem. One thing leads to another. How would they see at night in this tree? How do they handle human waste? If they never come down, what do they do with their dead? Things like that.

A long post to say that I feel for you. I think the combination suggestion is a good one. Having the basics the same would give the readers something to relate to while making them different would satisfy your need for fantasy.

Good luck!

Linda

MataPam said...

It could make an interesting hook for the story. Your hero's party walking through the forest, and the underbrush reaches out and grabs one of them. Author's choice whether he gets coated with seed pods/pollen/or eaten.

Chris L said...

Hi Chris,

I like this because I've subconsciously thought about it many times without facing it head on.

I'm thinking a little closer to home than the others. As you say, Earth biota varies from continent to continent, but there are also variations within countries. In Tassie you get a lot of sassafras and myrtle, consequently a thicker and healthier undergrowth than you'd get in say, NSW where the gum trees poison the ground with the toxicity of their leaves.

The NT is tropical, verdant in some places, a bit stunted and ravaged-looking in others.

I'm just saying, it doesn't all have to be the same and perhaps using Earth-like biota, but changing it up a bit can give an unearthly feel.

ie, desert mangroves indicating buried aquifers, combine spear grass and bamboo for something pretty deadly etc...

Plantlife evolves to fit its environment. If the rivers, mountains, and availability of sunlight and water are like Earth's, the biota should be as well. Less sunlight and the leaves may be bigger, the trees taller.

Less water and the roots deeper, etc...

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Brendan. Not a bad way to go, I guess I need to make sure I tweak then a little as well, so people know I done it deliberately & didn't just get my hemisphere mixed up:)

Chris McMahon said...

Good point, Mike. I'm planning a YA fantasy that is set in Brisbane, and that will take full advantage of the local setting, which should look very interesting to readers from other climes.

I have read some of the LMB books, although I cannot remember how she dealt with the setting specifically. I think that is ultimately the way I will go though - using some familiar plants with some created ones. If I owned those LMB books I'd re-read them to check the setting - maybe I can get some from the Baen free library:)

Cheers!

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Matapam. I like the way you think! Any cheats appreciated:)

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Linda. I think it makes for an easier intro into your story if the reader was familiar things to latch onto.

Now - your tree. I think the usual capillary action that earth trees use give a maximum limit to height. If your tree is massive - i.e. can hold a city, I would go for a different mechanism for getting water up through the tree, perhaps a combination of capillary and 'tree-muscle' pumps.

A tree that size would probably have some very extensive symbiotic biota - plants and animals that live in the tree and enhance its lifecycle. It is not a stretch at all to have colonies of monkeys that leave their dung in places in the tree where the tree can absorb it - giving it nutrients. The humans could use the same system. Perhaps the tree even traps small animals aka Venus flytrap. So perhaps the humans - with reverance for their living home - could have a ceremony where they place the dead in areas where the tree would suck them in.

You could really have fun with this. I could see a culture (retro) where they have lived so long in the tree they do not want to leave, perhaps being superstitious about it. They could, however, be facing some crises where it is required - i.e. their fuels cells are depleted etc.

Oh - you could have phosphorescent bacteria or plants in the tree for lighting that are powered off the tree's rich sap.

I could go on forever with this - which is not good for the reader, really. It is too overwhelming for most readers to have too many concepts thrown at them.

Good luck with the story.

Cheers,

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Matapam. If perhaps the unlucky traveller is mistaken for a walking zygote?

Chris McMahon said...

Hey, Chris L. You have just given me some good ideas for my world - plants hanging off chasm walls in one particular pass they all need to go through.

Desert mangroves - now there is a thought. How about islands of saltbush floating on mats of vegegation out in the bay:)

twittertales said...

When I first started writing, I wanted to be totally original. This meant completely new plants, animals, etc.

Big mistake. The inevitable result is I can only ever describe one or two plants in an entire scene (and, what's more, I have to describe them, which means much unnecessary exposition). So I'm a big fan of using familiar plants, although I also agree that a single mention of eucalyptus will freak readers out (we need more fantasy set in Australia, clearly - or, I suppose, we can be proud to be known for our distinctive nature).

The best solution I've discovered is having names that describe the thing - spear-grass (a real Australian plant), redberries, doghair tree.

Louise Curtis

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Louise. I made a similar mistake with my first novel. I tried to be really original. The problem was it so hard for people to get into - and there were some concepts and words I had to explain right at the beginning for the rest to make sense. I nightmare of backstory!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the suggestions, Chris. A couple of them sound actually usable considering what my husband and I already have in place.

If I can at least get the bones of the story (what I did with NaNoWriMo), I can expand, make things cool, and add plot points using the new things of interest.

And on your story, I, as an American never having been to Australia, would find native-based biota interesting. Not two pages at a time interesting, but sprinkled here and there for pacing. Good luck, too!

Linda

Chris McMahon said...

Good luck, Linda. Let me know how it goes. Cheers:)

Mike said...

Not to dissuade you from picking up copies of LMB books, but take a look over here http://baencd.thefifthimperium.com/24-CryoburnCD/CryoburnCD/

Cordelia's Honor has a relatively alien biosphere, while something like The Mountains of Mourning (short story, also in the Baen Free Library) has a mix, if I remember correctly.

Amanda Green said...

Chris, I like the idea of using the flora and fauna you grew up with. Like you, most of the "classic" fantasy I've read has that European feel when it comes to settings (We won't get into the bastardization of medieval life and times that so many authors do wrong). My thought on this is that most of your readers will find the names and descriptions as fantastical -- I know some of the things Kate's told me about seem out of this world. Add some new stuff, of course, but I am intrigued by the idea of reading a fantasy with an Australian bent.

Just my 2 cents worth.

Kate Paulk said...

My approach would be to start with the climates you're working in, and take a look at the kind of vegetation you'd get in that kind of climate.

Then I'd start with the items that I was most familiar with and for anything that was going to "feel" medieval-ish/high fantasy, use a descriptive name rather than the official name - like instead of Bougainvillea, call it something like thornbush, and mention how it's completely red at this time of year.

Add a few magical twists - and use magic extensively to explain away any oddities - and you're set.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Amanda. I think there is definately some inspiration I take from the Australian flora. I think I will end up with a bit of a hybrid.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Kate. My fantasy tends to be more ancient world than medieval. I like the idea of using descriptive words for things like that, it enables you put in something new while having something that does not twist the reader's mind too much. And magic - well it's a must have!