Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

14.02: Geography and Biomes

Your Hosts: Brandon, Dan, Howard, and Mahtab

Mahtab Narsimhan joins us this year for a dozen episodes on worldbuilding, and this week we’re talking about geography and biomes. These pieces of our settings can be central to the stories we tell, but they can also be backdrops, and the story purposes they serve may determine which tools we use to describe them.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Dan Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Describe a landscape using four senses that are not sight

Thing of the week: Legion vs. Phalanx: The Epic Struggle for Infantry Supremacy in the Ancient World, by Myke Cole, narrated by Alexander Cendese.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Where do you start when you are worldbuilding geography or a world? What do I need the geography to do? Sense of wonder is different than mystery. Start with the familiar, with components that you know really well. That gives you authenticity. The familiar can be immersive for the reader. What kind of geography suits the story? Then dig into the ramifications of that. Biomes can help you build a world. Biomes are kind of packaged ecosystems. Pay attention to transitions, too! Be aware, the map is not the territory. Go out and look at the actual landscape if you can!

[Mary] Season 14, Episode Two.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Geography and Biomes.

[Dan] 15 minutes long.

[Howard] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Mahtab] And we’re not that smart.

[Brandon] I’m Brandon.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Howard] I’m Howard.

[Mahtab] I’m Mahtab.

[Brandon] Mahtab, thank you so much for coming and being on the podcast with us.

[Mahtab] Thank you for having me.

[Brandon] Will you tell us a little bit about yourself?

[Mahtab] All right. Well, first of all, let me start with my name. It means moon… In Persian, it means moon light, and I was named by my grandmother. I have done everything from hotel management to credit card sales to IT sales and writing is actually my fourth career. I think I’m going to stick with this one. I absolutely love writing. Science fiction, fantasy… Though I have written fantasy before, in my Tara trilogy, trying to work on science fiction. I’m just looking forward to continuing writing for as long as I live.

[Brandon] We’re super excited to have you. Mahtab is going to be helping us on the second week of the month episodes…

[Dan] All year long.

[Brandon] This year. So you’ll be able to hear a lot from her.

[Brandon] We’re talking geography and biomes this year. I figured starting off worldbuilding, we would start right at the fundamental, the actual geography of the worlds that we create.


[Brandon] So I want to ask you guys, where do you start when you’re building geography, when you’re building a world, what’s your start point?

[Howard] I ask myself… And I’m going to go back to elemental genres… I ask myself what I need the geography to do.

[Brandon] Okay.

[Howard] If I need sense of wonder, that is a very different geography than if I need… Then if I’m writing a mystery and the geography is factoring into the mystery. In large measure, that is because if I want sense of wonder, I have to break out the wordsmithing, and I have to talk about the colors in the sights and the smells and the feeling of the air and all of these things in a way that’s very different than if I want it to be puzzling.

[Brandon] Yeah. I’ve seen a lot of sense of wonder in your writing. Give me an example of geography you might use if you were doing the mystery, instead?

[Howard] [breath] Uh.

[Brandon] Put you on the spot?

[Howard] No, no no no. That’s fine. I’m writing, right now, a novel set on a desert planet which has a thriving atmosphere, even though there is nothing growing on the surface.

[Brandon] Okay.

[Howard] Part of that mystery is… Everybody’s afraid to go outside, and you don’t go outside because it’s radioactive. There’s not enough… There’s not enough electromagnetic field. The science behind this says if you go outside, you will eventually die of cancer. Why is there an atmosphere? So you have this fear of being outside, and this puzzle about what is it underground that keeps pumping fresh oxygen to us, that keeps drawing carbon dioxide in? That puzzle is central to the whole book.

[Brandon] Awesome.

[Howard] But there’s also going to be sense of wonder in there, because [garbled they all does]

[Dan] I do a very similar thing, actually. I will look at what I need the world, what I need the geography to accomplish. In the middle grade that I’m writing right now, I was trying to figure out… They have… It’s science fiction and they’ve arrived at a brand-new planet. So I looked at the outline and realized that the actual function… Like, the size of the continents, what their land around it is like, wasn’t as important as like the physics of the world. I wanted to have very low gravity, I wanted to have very high density in the atmosphere… Things like that, in order to make certain things work.

[Brandon] Can you tell us what any of those are without giving spoilers, or… Just curious.

[Dan] Yeah, well. This is actually the sequel to Zero G, which is my big middle grade audiobook. In that one, they are going to a planet and it all takes place in zero or microgravity. You can fly, basically. I wanted to have a similar feeling in the second book. So I actually talked to a bunch of physicists. We came up with a combination of gravity and atmospheric pressure and things that would basically allow you to fly on muscle power. Then, looking at that, realized, “Oh, well, okay, if the atmosphere is dense enough to provide buoyancy, it’s also going to be narcotic.” So how can we work around that? Basically, producing an environment in which the little middle grade protagonists could have a lot of fun and do a lot of cool things. Making sure that I had the atmosphere chemically composed so that it would be narcotic rather than poisonous. So that it would make you kind of loopy and giggly, rather than kill you, was very important for the middle grade, as well. Whereas if I’m doing the fantasy series that I’m trying to write, that isn’t as important. What I need is different kingdoms that can be at war with each other. Why are they at war with each other? Well, there’s a geographical answer to that, as well.

[Mahtab] When I started writing, I wanted something that was more familiar to me, so at least my first four novels are set in India. I just feel that because every component of a story, whether it’s setting or character or plot or pacing, everything has to work together. It would be easy if new writers, at least especially for me, to start with one component that I knew really, really well. So, which is why… I mean, I don’t have to spend too much time, all I have to do is close my eyes and I can imagine myself in India, the sights, the sounds, the smells, the touch, tastes, everything. That is why… That is one component that’s kind of taken care of. As you progress towards getting better at writing, at making sure that everything works, then, I think, you can start working on fantasy lands where you do need to do a bit of research, go to experts that could probably tell you a little bit more about that. I mean, you could probably put some more effort into the geography. So, for me, I like to start with the familiar. In fact, the next novel that I’m going to be working on is set on Mars. Now, that’s a little bit difficult to try and figure out what the place is going to be like.


[Mahtab] You have to rely on lots of stuff. So I like to start with the familiar, and then moved to something that’s made up.

[Howard] There’s so much to be said for the familiar as something that is immersive for the reader. The sugar sand beaches in Sarasota, Florida, where I grew up. Some details. One, when you walk barefoot in that sand, it’s hard. It pushes out of the way. You end up taking different kinds of steps. You sort of do this shuffle step. The humidity is cloying. Every time I’ve stepped off a plane in Florida, I’ve taken one breath and realized [sniff] “Oh, that’s right. Oh, that.” Then… And this is something that people often don’t think of. We get on those beautiful white beaches, you can have a snow blindness from the glare. These are all things that I’ve experienced, and I know well enough that I can write about them when I am talking about a desert. Because they all fit just well enough that I can leverage that.

[Brandon] When you were writing about India, were you picking a specific city that you knew or were you creating a made up one?

[Mahtab] It was made up. I mean, the little town of Morni in northern India was made up. But everything else, it’s like the foods or the smells or the cultures and the customs of the people, that was… I mean, I’ve lived in India. So I know. Then, of course, you could tweak a little bit, but it started out with a familiar base of what it is like, and then I kind of changed it around. I put a lot of Indian mythology in it. Which kind of added a bit more texture and flavor to the story. So, yeah, I mean… Of course, India is vast. It’s got lots of languages, cultures, so what happens in North India doesn’t happen in South India, but the fact is that you… Because it was a made up little town, I could add bits and pieces and still get that authenticity in the narrative.

[Howard] I recently watched a documentary about the monsoon season in southern India and the way it shapes whether all over the globe. It was utterly fascinating. The documentary… You look at the towns, the villages, the communities in that area, and how… Yeah, they really have two times of the year. Which is monsoon, and everything else.

[Brandon] Let’s stop for the book of the week.

[Howard] Oh. Yes. I have a history book for you, written by my friend, Myke Cole. It’s called Legion versus Phalanx. It’s his first history book, and I am absolutely in love with the voice that he uses for teaching us history. Specifically, teaching us about the Roman Legion and the Greek, the Hellenistic, Phalanx, and how those two related. The fundamental question is well, who would win? We all think we know the answer. Well, the Romans would win because…

[Dan] They did.

[Howard] That’s who would win because they did. But the why behind that is kind of the meat of the book. Myke takes all kinds of angles in discussing this, including… And that’s why I want to do that one this week… Including geography. One of the fascinating facts is that the Roman Legion can turn more quickly than a Phalanx can. So if you’re fighting on the flat, maybe it’s a level… Pardon the pun… Playing field. But the moment there are hills, or trees or whatever, the Legion has an advantage. That’s just scratching the surface. The book is awesome, I think you’ll love it. Myke Cole, Legion Versus Phalanx.

[Brandon] Dan, you said something earlier that relates to this idea, with Legion versus Phalanx. Where you said if you’re designing a fantasy world, you would take the geography into account for developing the politics, the governments, the systems. Talk a little bit more about that. How would you do that?

[Dan] Well. Um. In this particular instance… This is the book I’ve been working on for a long time, and it still is not out, and may never be. But I needed… the premise is that the fantasy world is also a reality show that people from other planets watch. One of the main shows that got everyone’s attention was this kind of ongoing War of the Roses style thing. Where there was the constantly moving border. You look historically at the War of the Roses between the French and the English, and the definition of what is French and what is English changed constantly, and who was who and who was in charge. So I wanted to create the kind of geography that would (A) give you something to fight over. Some kind of resource or power that made that land worth a multi-generational war. But that also allowed for that kind of fluid border and fluid national identity. So that the people could… We used to belong to this, but now we belong to this, because that King won the last war. Which is different than just I want to have two kingdoms fighting. In my case, I ended up giving them a religious component. There was a religious lake that was central to the religion shared by both of these kingdoms. So they were kind of fighting over that, Dome of the Rock style. We want to make sure that this belongs to us, because it is very important, and not to those other terrible people on the other side of the border. Then figuring out, well, okay, this is therefore the kind of place that has a lake. What does that signify about the surrounding area? I love thinking about it in these terms because then, once I have a premise, I can spin that out. What are the ramifications of that? What is this lake used for? If it’s religious, do they fish it or is it off-limits? How is that going to affect the culture? Are they going to be a fishing culture or not? All of those questions can be answered as you follow yourself down the rabbit hole.

[Brandon] I want to touch briefly on the idea of biomes. Next week, we will come back and talk about a fun concept called world of hats. This is where…


[Brandon] Sometimes a planet will express only one idea. We’ll talk about that next week. But I want to talk about the idea of different biomes in your stories. Because specifically, when I started to really get into worldbuilding geography, there was so much to learn. In any of these topics we’ll be talking about this year, we could spend an entire year’s podcasts just on geography. As a newbie coming into it, I often felt as a fantasy author, I needed to have working knowledge of so many different things, it sometimes felt overwhelming. When I started to learn about the idea of how biomes interact and why they are where they are, that helped me to start to be able to build some of these fantasy worlds and kind of make some sort of short hands. So, what are biomes? What do I mean by that? How does that shorthand help?

[Dan] A biome is kind of like… This is a generalization that a bio scientist would be upset with. But it’s kind of like the ecosystem. It’s kind of like, say, well, this is a desert biome versus a tundra versus a jungle versus a forest, whatever. It’s a really good thing to think about, especially if you’re writing fantasy. Because we come from such a strong kind of overpowering tradition of medieval European fantasy that everyone tends to have the rolling hills and forest biome, with maybe some snowy mountain peaks where the barbarians live.

[Howard] I’ve got a great example of that. I’ve recently been reading up on the Judean wilderness. There is a word that they have in Arabic, wadi, which is a dry riverbed. Our word for it in English is dry riverbed. In English, you say this because it’s something that… Your river broke. It’s not… The river doesn’t exist anymore. Something went wrong. In Arabic, it is a word for a feature of the landscape. So you have the geography directly impacting the language. What’s interesting is Guadalcanal and Guadalajara get their names from Arabic, wādī al-qanāl and wādī al-ḥijārah are the original names of those places. So in reading this, I quickly realized that Arabic geography, Arabic peninsula geography was influencing language and place names where there really weren’t that many dry riverbeds. Really cool stuff.

[Mahtab] The other thing one also has to remember is that you… When you’re also thinking of biomes, you just do not have hills, and then you have a desert, and then… There’s a lot of gradual transition from one to the other, so think of the hybrids as well. Like, the mountains rolling into foothills into some kind of a desert land and then into the river or the seashore or something like that. So don’t just think when you’re building a biome or when you’re thinking of your geography or landscape that, okay, it’s just gotta have mountains, it’s gotta have this. Try and do a gradual transition. That’s why sometimes it’s necessary to know a lot of stuff and then combine it together to see what is necessary and where your city or your town or your protagonists are located.

[Dan] Yeah. That’s a really good point to make, especially because, not only are we very heavily influenced by old European fantasy, but also by Star Wars. So we do tend to have this concept of, “Oh, well, this is the snow planet, and this is the desert planet.” Those transitional areas are not only more common, but they’re much more interesting. Utah is a desert, and we have a big, nasty Salt Lake. But what that Salt Lake also provides is an incredible saltmarsh wetland that’s one of the coolest bird preserves in the country. That often gets forgotten, because we’re just kind of broad brushed is a desert. So when you do your research and figure out what all these transitional states are, there’s a lot of cool stuff in them.

[Mahtab] That could actually inform your story or your character or could be a point of… Plot point, conflict, what have you. So you gotta research that.

[Howard] There’s a quote from Robert De Niro… Actually, I had to look this up. The movie, Ronin, 1998. They’re doing this tactical map on a whiteboard and talking about this plan. De Niro says, “The map is not the territory.” They all go out and look at it, and everything changes as they realize that these sightlines are not two dimensional, this is… For me, having the whiteboard translate to an actual landscape, I realized, “Oh. All these fantasy maps that I love drawing, which was a thing that I loved drawing in 1998, are not the territory. I’m going to have to go outside to get a feel for this.”

[Brandon] Let’s wrap it up here. Mahtab, you have homework for us.

[Mahtab] Yes, I do. Normally, when we start describing geography or describing a setting, we tend to rely mostly on our sense of sight. So the homework for you today is when you… Take your setting, your fantasy world, whatever it is. Take out the sight. Out of it. Just describe it using sounds, smells, tastes, and feels. No sight. So, for example, if it was a blind person who was describing a setting, how would you do that? That’s… Yeah, that’s your homework.

[Brandon] Excellent. This has been Writing Excuses, you’re out of excuses, now go write.