World Building — The Scenery Behind the Tale — Fantasy February tour day 16
How does an author create the landscape of a story? A city, town, or village where believable characters live, and where a plot can evolve both realistically and dramatically? It needs to be a bit familiar, but also not cliche. It must invite new readers and restore established habitats to existing fans.
How does a writer do this? Again and again? For every new plot? It’s hard! And when you want to make it historically accurate, even more so….
However, I have always enjoyed the challenge of merging a landscape with a personality. It’s probably the actor in me that enjoys this — finding just the right props and outfits for my characters. So, one of this writers greatest pleasures in collecting
material for a novel directly from research. The method I used in creating my most recent character, healer Irene Gueri, was, first, to imagine her world. This couldn’t be a world of the present — she was born in the late 1500s. It couldn’t be a city. Her trade is herbal medicine, and to be successful, she would have to be close to her woodland and prairie ingredients. And I didn’t want the location where Irene lived to be very well known. Fifty
novels, at least, went to press last year featuring the era of the Renaissance. It’s likely that most included settings of Florence or Sienna, perhaps Rome or Naples. But not a lot would situate their tale in rural France. This was where I hoped to distinguish myself and the world I would build.
So, I now knew these things:
My hero was a thirty-something peasant woman
She had a profession and was the sole practitioner of a business, as herbal healer
She lived in rural France, approx. 1590-1650
She had apprenticed in a city
She read and wrote Latin, French, and some Greek
From there, I needed to look at maps. Where, in this era, was there abundant herbal life? And where could a woman practice her trade without being subject to the Inquisition, to the all-day work obligations to a feudal lord? Where could she own her own home and garden in which to set up practice? Where was there a town that also sat near a frontier — with access to outside learning but ALSO might be subject to invasion? I knew I wanted an invasion.
My answer to these questions of location was — Provence, France. In particular, mountainous Provence, an area called the Mediterranean Alps. I now had the region where Irene would live.
I next began to look at landscape. I tore through books of landscape photography, pen and ink illustrations, castles, farms, mountain tops, valleys, flowers, trees, foodstuffs, markets, fishing villages, textile markets, farmhouses, medieval streets, Roman bridges, ancient ruins, and animal life of every type. Some of those images I have put up on Instagram, which I’ve excerpted above. Some of these photos I’ll enlarge below.
Once I had my region picked out for my novel, I then had to build a town. Did one already exist where I could place the characters of my tale? I thought so, at first. The real village of St. Dalmas stands along a high range of mountains near the Italian border in an area of Provence famous among rock climbers and skiiers. Though it seemed perfect, especially with the tiny population (just 300), I ran into problems. The herbs, fruits, and flowers I needed Irene to cultivate for her practice didn’t grow at St. Dalmas’ elevation. I found this out from a series of emails I sent to a charming inhabitant of the village, St. Dalmas. He is in his eighties and knows everything about Provence, so he set me straight about several things.
On the guidance of my French informant, I duly moved my setting down the mountain. But as I had already written most of my plot, and included such geographic details as gorges, waterfalls and deep cravasses, I still required a fairly mountainous terrain. So, rather than include as my backdrop an actual French village, I invented one. The town that I name in my novel is Les Echelles. It means steps, or ladder. There does exist a town of this name in France, but it isn’t in Provence. My version of Les Echelles is entirely invented. This allows me to situate the village in craggy mountains, full of gorges, but at a sufficiently low elevation that pear and lemon trees may grow, as will numerous medicinal herbs and flowers. Voila.
The characters who evolved from my choice of location turned up while researching the landscape. There remain to this day many of the ancient trades that still work the land of Provence. They include shepherds, goat herders,
dairymen and women, bakers, brewers, weavers, potters, dyers, and wet nurses. There is a famous manufacture of ochre in the mountains of this region. The sand and clay there produce pigments for export all over the world. I use this theme in the search my hero goes on in my novel for a source of blue pigment — something valuable at the time that she could use to finance an escape from her newly invaded village.
As well as the traditional service trades in my village, Les Echelles, I include reference to salt production, horse breeding, wine cultivation, shipping, and fishing. However in the modern age, the most productive economy in Provence is tourism. One of the most active ports of Europe sits in Provence, as it happens, at the city of Marseilles. Habitation there goes back to the cavemen. There are, indeed, cave drawings on cliff-sides in my novel. I also include an ancient mother goddess. Her presence lurks in many provencal wells and fountains to this day. In my book, I call her Zahara, and I describe her as a drowned bride, stolen as a war prize from the Holy Land.
So do you build worlds? How do you do it? Do you look at pictures? Eat foreign food? Or get an account with a rare book library? All these things are integral in writing historical fiction. I probably could have written three books with the details I took down from my investigation, but I’ll settle for unloading on this blog the countless folk tales, strange monuments, crazed generals, and tank-like dragons that my novel could not include.
There is certainly much more to be said on the matter of building worlds. A few others on the Fantasy February Blog Tour are doing this. Here is a list, in order, of my fellow authors whose blogs I hope you’ll visit during this special authors’ event.
|Crystal Crawford||Http://crawfordwriting.wordpress.com||February||4||Characters/worldbuilding/how to|
|Katy Huth Jones||katyhuthjones.blogspot.com||February||4||Reviews|
|Kristin J. Dawson||Deepmagic.co||February||5||Favorites/Review|
|Jenelle Schmidt||http://jenelleschmidt.com||February||5||Blog Tag|
|Laura VanArendonk Baugh||LauraVanArendonkBaugh.com||February||5||Research|
|Elizabeth Koetsier||www.elizabethkoetsier.com||February||5||World building|
|Amelia Nichole||http://amelianichole.com||9||World building/review|
|Katy Huth Jones||katyhuthjones.blogspot.com||11||Reviews|
|Crystal Crawford||Http://crawfordwriting.wordpress.com||11||Characters/worldbuilding/how to|
|Elizabeth Koetsier||www.elizabethkoetsier.com||12||World building|
|Melissa Rose Gardiner||1busyhoneybee.wordpress.com/||14||Review|
|Selina J. Eckert||sjeckert.wordpress.com||15||Genres|
|Amelia Nichole||http://amelianichole.com||16||World building/review|
|Laura Matthias Bendoly||https://laurambendoly.wordpress.com/||16||Characters/worldbuilding|
|Katy Huth Jones||katyhuthjones.blogspot.com||18||Reviews|
|Crystal Crawford||Http://crawfordwriting.wordpress.com||18||Characters/worldbuilding/how to|
|Elizabeth Koetsier||www.elizabethkoetsier.com||19||World building|
|Kendra E. Ardnek||knittedbygodsplan.blogspot.com||20||Character interview|
|T. R. Gemmell||https://tobeashennachie.wordpress.com/||23||Research|
|Katy Huth Jones||katyhuthjones.blogspot.com||25||Reviews|
|Elizabeth Koetsier||www.elizabethkoetsier.com||26||World building|
|Jenelle Schmidt||http://jenelleschmidt.com||28||Closing Ceremonies|