Of flowers and world-building

I am no J.R.R. Tolkien. The thought of even trying to create something as deep and profound as his Arda makes me want to give up.

Still, world-building is important even when one is not writing about a fictional world. If I write about my home city, I still have to build it into the story for the benefit of people who do not know it.

But the truth is, I am not writing about my home, or even my world. A while back I made the decision, rightly or wrongly, to not fear using elements from Earth. This may cause confusion (and a major re-write) later on, but my thought-process went something like this:

I am writing in English, with the characters speaking English, which means I am already acting as a translator (because it would make no sense for these people to speak English).

Moreover, these people are human, which begs all kinds of questions on a world which is not Earth.

I borrow from cultures around me (one must begin somewhere, and “write-what-you-know” applies to fantasy and sci-fi, too).

It makes sense to borrow ecology, weather-patterns, geology and other world aspects, as well, for two reasons: 1. I am not clever enough to come up with a working world whole-cloth  and 2. if I manage to make it all up, I lose all of the rich symbolism and cultural significance that already exists in our world (and therefore needs a lot less explaining).

Ok, then, I will go ahead and write the story around what I know and go from there.

My reasoning might be quite flawed. I would love for you to chip in and discuss it with me, if world-building interests you.

So, what has this to do with flowers?

Floriography is a word for a tradition found in several cultures in which plants or flowers are used to convey meaning or even a message. It’s fascinating, though not very reliable. Even in the same culture, some flowers have very different meanings, and when a flower’s meaning relies on its color or variety, things get even more complicated.

In the cultural history of my home state, both indigenous and colonial, this symbolism sometimes reaches the level of belief or superstition. Instead of symbolizing something, a flower or plant is thought to be a vessel of the thing itself. That kind of superstition has bled into my writing and is becoming a significant thread in the narrative.

The thing is, I don’t agree with many of the “meanings” given to flowers in the past. That isn’t an indictment of tradition, but a mere matter of taste. For my story, different significances and superstitions may be needed, and to that end, I am creating a new floriography as I go along. If this ever happens to be published, such a list will probably be in Appendices for those who are interested.

So, you see, my world-building is rather haphazard. Some things echo Earth (oh, hey! There’s an oak-tree and some raspberries, and is that person singing Wildwood Flower?) and some things diverge (there are several fictional plants already, plus, you know, mythological beasties and stars and more than one moon…).

Why am I telling this to the internets? Well, I am looking for thoughts and opinions on this matter. I can’t make a good, informed decision on anything without input. So, what are your opinions and preferences when it comes to world-building? Are you a stickler for consistency? Do you try to science out if the place you are reading about is Earth (past, present, future, parallel)? Do you like fictional worlds to be completely new and interesting? Do you like familiarity? Do you even notice when there’s an oak-tree in T’naké’lorilin’arpa’liél?

For me, I think what is most important is whether or not the world, in and of itself, makes sense/works. I am not above or beyond changing my opinion, though.

About jubilare

Just another tree in the proverbial forest. Look! I have leaves! View all posts by jubilare

30 responses to “Of flowers and world-building

  • Rob

    Great post, but it makes me realize why I will never write fiction, especially fantasy or SF. That’s a LOT to consider!

    It also makes me realize what a wondrous, jaw-dropping thing God did by speaking this earth and the universe into existence and then maintaining it and everything in it. Creation is the greatest miracle, hands-down!

    Thanks for the “wow” moment. Hope you’re well!

    • jubilare

      It is a lot, but it’s a big reason why I do what I do. As intimidating as it can be, it’s exhilarating to create. Not only is the Master Creator unendingly astonishing when I look at the world and universe around me, but the shard of creativity He placed in us is an awe-inspiring gift! :)

      I got my port removed yesterday, so I am sore, but happy! I hope you and yours are well and enjoying Spring!

  • L. Palmer

    I like to have familiarity. Using things that already exist on Earth, or close-equivalents, can save time. If a detail is unimportant for the overall story, it might be better to stay closer to real things, but if it is important, then more time can be spent describing, and it can be further from reality.

    • jubilare

      I feel much the same way. After all, the myths and fairytales that started the fantasy and SF genres are based on Earth and diverge from there. Things do seem to change, though, when one creates whole worlds rather than having something unusual happen on Earth.
      I am glad you aren’t bothered by the familiar and unfamiliar when they mix. Maybe I will be speaking the same language as at least some readers. :)

  • technicolorlilypond

    “For me, I think what is most important is whether or not the world, in and of itself, makes sense/works.”

    I think that is the key point. Whether you are using a mix of novel and familiar elements I think as long as they serve the story it works. I find myself fixating on inconsistencies and stickler-type questions (how could that possibly have evolved? why would that eat THAT? why would the weather do this, again?) when either the story or the characters are failing to enchant me into suspending my disbelief. I think every writer has to do a lot of world building and pre-writing to make a believable universe but I don’t think there should be hard and fast rules as to what the materials of world building should be. Tolkien drew on a lot of pieces from our world to build his, I think Frank Herbert did too. When you read That Hideous Strength C.S. Lewis includes some very awkward bits that sort of, kind of, maybe? tie the world of Tolkien to the world of Earth in his space trilogy. THAT made no sense because it so obviously did not belong in the narrative Lewis had built up, he betrayed his own internal consistency; but as long as you keep faith with your world, dragons, lavender, novel plants and all I think you will be fine.

    • jubilare

      Ahh… excellent way to look at it! So excellent, in fact, that I might try and consider it in a post. Hmm. Suspension of disbelief as a function of being engrossed in/enchanted by a story. You’re absolutely right, though I have never thought of it that way. A really bad flaw in world-building can jerk me out of even a good story, but I notice even small flaws when the story and characters are subpar.

      Tolkien gets away with a lot of element-mixing, as far as I am concerned, because Ea is Earth, at least in some mythological form. I expect them to have humans and daisies as easily as I accept the existence of dragons and ents. Nobody’s perfect, but Tolkien did a pretty impressive job with internal consistency.

      The new “Hobbit” movie (quotation marks very intentional), however, didn’t do such a good job even with its own consistency. I plan on re-watching it soon and expressing my thoughts on it, but is this too much to ask: that failing to remain consistent with the source material, a film should at least be consistent within the rules it sets for its world?

      I hope to get to/through That Hideous Strength some time soon, and then we can prod it together. :)

      • technicolorlilypond

        I’m glad I helped! Just remember, Tolkien wasn’t always TOLKIEN! He just plain liked world-building, it was his hobby for years without any especial thought to putting a narrative together–C.S. Lewis & others had to prod him into that. I think the cumulative effort of years accounts for why his world is so rich and believable; he had inhabited it for so long he could build a consistent narrative within its bounds. You should not compare yourself, expect yourself, or push yourself to be Tolkien because that is just not fair to you. I don’t think you’re doing that but I just think it is wise to remind oneself periodically to have achievable expectations. It is hard enough to the one and only you without adding on being anybody else. I think it is perfectly possible to build a richly furnished world and craft a story in its realms without putting the Tolkien level of years and years of minutiae into the effort. You can do it, Jubilare! Be your own original you. :-) And read That Hideous Strength so we can prod it and exclaim over how the heck Numenor is involved. ;-)

        • jubilare

          Well, he was always TOLKIEN, in a sense. Yes, I am sure the process of creation was long an arduous, (and ultimately unfinished, at least in his eyes), but the elements that made him such a good world-builder were very much a part of him before he began writing. His immersion in mythology, his love of and talent with languages, his faith, etc. There are plenty of writers out there with either the talent or the work-ethic to create amazing worlds, but it is rare that the two elements combine to give us something we can step into and walk around in.

          That said, I agree with your point. I am not Tolkien, nor should I (or you) be. To create the best world I can, I have to work to my strengths. Of my favorite authors, the only one I seem to share style with is George MacDonald. I am not him, either, though. I would really like to share more of my writing here, but I am a little afraid to do so. If I ever do get published, I am not sure I want anything but the story loose on the world. I feel like the process or extraneous information might muddy the thing itself. For now, I guess, the snippets of randomness will be all I post here.

          Oh, and by the way, you are responsible for the use of the word “widdershins” in my current WIP. I thought that might make you smile. :)

          I have heard of that oddness! It hurts my brain and I haven’t even read the story!

          • technicolorlilypond

            I’m glad that I inspired you to use the word “widdershins” in your WIP, that is a great compliment. Did you get it from my flash fiction story or my general love of the word? Either way that’s great. :-)

            You inspired me to put Til We Have Faces on my 2014-2015 reading list, Jubilare. When I finish it and you finish That Hideous Strength we will definitely have to have a Lewis discussion.

            I hope you’re making progress on your WIP and having fun with it. I thought of you the other day when I got some pictures of a young crow flapping around my backyard. There is a little murder of four crows that like to bounce around the trees back there and it is magic of a sort I thought you might appreciate.

          • jubilare

            It was both, actually. Spirals are an important part of magic in my story, and the direction of the spiral dictates what it does. I’d been struggling to find the right terminology in a world where clocks aren’t common enough for “clockwise” and “counter-clockwise” to make much sense. Widdershins and sunwise, though, is perfect.

            :) I hope you end up liking Till We Have Faces, but even if you don’t, we should have a lot to talk about.

            Ach, yes. I adore crows, and they are present in my writing. Nature as a whole plays a big role in what I write, and was one of the main things that inspired me to start writing. Are you going to post the crow pictures? or have you? I suppose I should go check. I have been very absent lately.

          • technicolorlilypond

            Oh good! I’m glad my little piece of flash and my word-nerd-ness is coming in handy. I love the idea of widdershins and sunwise as directions for spells, that sounds so enchanting. I hope your WIP is going well.

            Well you should stop by the pond on general principle (I have new posts!) but I haven’t yet posted my crow pictures. I’m trying to decide whether to post them with my book-reviews so far or some flash fiction. Decisions, decisions…

            There is a neat picture I took of a red-winged blackbird up though. I always see the neatest stuff when I don’t have my zoom lens with me but considering the technology it’s a pretty neat little picture.

          • jubilare

            The comments are getting squished. See my full reply below. :)

  • Stephanie Orges

    Good question. I certainly struggle with it.

    Where’s the line between doing enough research on weather patterns and cosmology and ancient Rome, and spending ALL your time in research, never writing, paralyzed by the fear that you will get something wrong?

    There will always be people who’ll find flaws with the world. Science majors and the like who exult in knowing things others do not. Rather than simply enjoying the story for itself, they love to explore its viability.

    God help us, we can’t write for those people. Frank Herbert and Larry Niven write for those people, and it’s called “hard science fiction.”

    So I tell myself, “It’s okay. I don’t write hard sci-fi.”

    Yet. I still lose sleep wondering. Is this expression too modern? Too American? Is this planet too much like Earth? Is this form of space travel completely ludicrous? And if all the dialogue is not English, but translated by the narrator, does it make sense for some characters to have Earth-like accents?

    I worry a lot about my history, too. Really, I have no answer. It’s just darts in the dark. We do a little research, we do a little planning, we do a heck of a lot of rethinking, and then we have to get to writing. It’ll never be perfect. Mainly we have to hope it’s detailed and consistent enough for the normal reader to appreciate. Your world feels very well-thought out and realistic to me so far.

    My world, too, has more than one moon!!! Small world…haha. I bought a book called “What if the Earth had two moons?” but it hasn’t been super helpful. Maybe if I read more of it. : /

    I also had a mathematician I know calculate how often both moons on such a world would be simultaneously full (assuming the second moon is twice the size and distance as the first). While protesting that he had to make many outlandish assumptions about the physics of these two moons (“do you realize the trauma you put me through?”), he answered:

    “This second moon would have a full moon aprox. every 58.58 days. They would be in the sky together pretty often but they’d only be at a perfect full moon together every 1,729.8674 days, or 4 years, 268 days, 20 hours, 49 min, 03 sec, and 36 mil-sec approximately.”

    So, yeah. In case that helps you.

  • jubilare

    “It’ll never be perfect. Mainly we have to hope it’s detailed and consistent enough for the normal reader to appreciate. Your world feels very well-thought out and realistic to me so far.”

    Yes, that is the conclusion I am running on so far, but the reassurance helps immensely. And thank you!
    I do my best to avoid the really blatant stuff… Like, I once told a guy I was reading a chapter for that his perfectly human hero could not get up and fight after having his fully-armored warhorse fall on him. But no matter how much research I do, there’s always stuff I am simply not going to know! There’s way too much information in the world! Friends of mine laugh (in a friendly way) and call me “human encyclopedia.” They don’t seem to know that, writing what I do, I am always studying, too.
    And thank you! Huge compliment!

    I so hope there is some sort of Full Moons festival on your world, because that would be fantastic!
    Alas, I fear I am just going to wing it with my moons. There might be a few people out there capable of debunking the whole thing, but hopefully not many. I have one much like our moon, that has primary rule over the tides, and two small, distant “twins” that share and orbit and were probably a small moon that got crunched by something… so trying to figure out their cycle alone, without the big moon, would be such a headache! And then there’s the “shadow moon” which isn’t actually a moon at all (no, it’s not a death-star, either ;) and can only be “seen” when it comes between the planet and the stars, moons, or sun.

    So… someone needs to create some sort of moon-calculation algorithm for writers. “moon this size, in this orbit, would do this” etc. :P

    • Stephanie Orges

      Yes! Such an algorithm would be invaluable. Even further, a computer program that lets you fill out specifications of planet size, sun size, other planets, etc., etc., and it figures out days, nights, seasons and weather patterns.

      For now I think we just have to take some poetic license.

      I was thinking of a full moons festival! That’s the exact reason I asked him to figure it out. More a passive reason, though, as so far the festival hasn’t come up in the story, but I may find a reason to work it in in the sequels.

      • jubilare

        *Sigh* yes. I’ve been researching calendars and have been reading up on the Mayan. Fascinating… and a bit mind-boggling… and it has made me consider creating such a confusing calendar that people can’t easily fact-check me. ;) On the other hand, I don’t want it to be so bewildering that it is implausible. I’ve had some inspiration in that area, but I have no idea whether or not what I have in mind will work, poetic licenses or not. Blarggedyblarg!

        Considering the interval, it could even be a thing of legend! I don’t know how long the denizens of your story live, but it seems like that would be a while in any mortal reckoning. ((Edit: I re-read the numbers and realized I was reading them wrong. Oops! But still, over four years calls for quite a party!))

        I’m about to the point where I throw up my hands to say that the cycle of the twins is so complex that most folk don’t bother much with it beyond the position in the sky. After all, their interaction with each other, plus the world, the sun, and the other moon, creates too many variables for my highly limited mathematical reasoning.

  • palecorbie

    I see no point in calling a rabbit a smeerp. Hell, in Gun’s world they call the things in the sky “whales” as well as the ones in the sea…just avoid words that refer to Earth places, say I (unless you’re on an alt-Earth to start with).

    That said, I do go utterly nuts when writers mix fauna/flora/plonk it in entirely the wrong place. (e.g. if your heroine is listening to “the beautiful liquid warbling of magpies” under the eucalyptus shade [glare at Ms. Dart-Thornton] she should be an Aboriginie, not a blonde pseudoCelt) White defaultisim is often to blame, as in the example, but nothing throws me out of a fantasy faster than a setting that does its darndest to be, say, pseudomediaeval Europe, then adds random New World trees or wildlife that’re just There and somehow don’t make an utter mess of the ecosystem. Tolkien’s tatties are a weird exception pretty much because the Shire is, and because they’re never quite defined as potatoes, only potato-like…

    • jubilare

      Perhaps in the proto-earth that is Middle Earth the things given names that we recognize are the ancestors of what we call them today? ^_^

      One of my problems is that I know enough science to know that the idea of the ecology I am familiar with would not, whole-cloth, exist on another world without interference of some kind. But at the same time, I’m not going to call a raccoon a bandersnatch… so I would have to create a world from scratch… and the story would never be written and I probably wouldn’t be satisfied with it if it were. Part of my writing has always flowed from my love of my environment, and what I see and smell inspires me so very much. So here I am, saying “to hell with the incongruities, I have rhododendron slicks, three moons, and unicorns.” :P Here is hoping the world is ready for such nonsense.

  • Robert Braxton

    I have read (in English) The River Between (African Writers Series) by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o — who decided to write all his future works in Kikuyu, not in language of the colonialist(s). My creation fits more into the guy who spent eleven years constructing the world’s largest tree house — except I concentrate on the paint chips and pebbles, tossing onto my cairn-gorm, not yet ready to create either place or world but through destruction (like earthworms in compost) piling up (worm) castings for future world creation and plant growth, even if after my own death (this year I will turn 70, God willing).

    • jubilare

      Do you mean you take things in for synthesis? I find myself doing that constantly with everything. The difference is, I guess, that I don’t wait to break things down before I start creating. It’s like I have the messiest garage in existence, and I rummage around in it to find components for new inventions, often stumbling across things I had forgotten about.

      One of my college professors once said something along the lines of “our brains are like coffee-makers. You shove in beans and water and some time later, something new flows out.” It’s a pretty good description of how things work for me.

      • Robert Braxton

        The works of my brain are most fascinating after I am not (working) — to wit, a night of sleeping, night dreams, in-direction (a great method). Trying to solve a problem “head on” sometimes reaches an impasse – and the way to make progress is to turn direct attention away from the struggle and let something fascinating and new happen. My pen writes that way. As George Eliot writes in Middlemarch, the tip of the pen has a brain / mind of its own — maybe even these tips of fingers on laptop computer keyboard, although for me those two brains are different. I like your style.

        • jubilare

          What you say is something I have found to be true, too. Some problems, though, take active solving, like the calendar system I am currently working on.
          Thank you! :)

  • bobraxton

    because “fantasy” can be perjorative (SP?) I prefer “imagination” –
    a crow mow knee

    • jubilare

      Whatever word is used will become pejorative if people have a low opinion of the genre. Personally, I’m happy to call a spade a spade, and many things, other than fantasy, contain large quantities of imagination.

  • jubilare

    […] Choose a plant and make up a symbolic meaning for […]

  • jubilare

    To Technicolorlilypond:

    You should write your own story with such, if the idea enchants you! Your idea of how it works would probably be very different from mine and I would love to see it!

    On my way. :)

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