Writing Excuses 10.15: Worldbuilding Wilderness with Wes Chu

Wes Chu, author and adventurer, recently climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, and has some things to say about all the wilderness trekking that our characters do in the books we write, and how we often forget to say anything about sleeping on inclines, altitude sickness, or packing toilet paper.

The salient point: we need to remember that our characters are experiencing these wilderness treks, and they have interesting opinions about them.


Wes has a tough writing exercise for us: take something that you’ve already written, swap the personalities of your protagonist and antagonist, and re-write a scene from the story.

The Rebirths of Tao, by Wesley Chu, isn’t available yet on Audible, but the first book in the trilogy, The Lives of Tao is.

13 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 10.15: Worldbuilding Wilderness with Wes Chu”

  1. It’s not just you.

    We’ve been trying to get the ‘cast to re-appear on iTunes, but there’s no actual interface with Apple that will allow us to throw a switch, or even find out what’s wrong.

  2. Listening to this episode just gave me an idea for a nice little detail to put into my Space Opera / Spy Thriller WIP: When two agents dive down to board a damaged enemy submarine, one will complain about the water feeling disgustingly oily, with the other one explaining how this is just the increased viscosity caused by the unusual mineral and salt content.

  3. Very interesting post! I discovered another little-thought-of aspect of being in the wilderness that I experienced during a school trip. Getting lost tends to do something weird to time perception. I think I must have been lost from the rest of my class for less than a minute, but I could already envision a life where I would just have to live in the forest amongst the primates, began wondering if they would accept me or just eat me, and every single shadow, sound, and butterfly felt like an unknowable threat.

    That was when I really felt out of my depth, when I was sure the butterfly was going to attack me because now I was on its home turf, as opposed to when I usually saw them in my tame garden. I had convinced myself in seconds that I was doomed, and would likely have started screaming if I hadn’t run into my equally lost classmate, and a second later been rescued by the guide. I haven’t been on a wilderness trek voluntarily since then, but perhaps I’ll willing to venture out again soon, now that GPS is readily available.

  4. I think I saw the same videos as Brandon regarding torches. Another interesting fact is that if you have a torch in the dark then *everybody else can see you.* Not necessarily a good thing if you’re hunting something or somebody.

    I definitely turned the “carry vs. forage” into a major plot point in the book I’m shopping around, and tied it to a character and his magical abilities, then accidentally built a religion on it. So… I’m actually really reassured right now.

    As for “just eating one thing,” I feel like Bilbo in the Hobbit is a great example of dealing with that, since it seems like at least part of why he hopped over to the Lakemen in the night was because he was just so sick of cram.

  5. As someone with a fair amount of outdoor experience, I particularly enjoyed this episode. Like you all said, the little things about being out in the wilderness get overlooked a lot and it can sometimes even break my suspension of disbelief. The point about food is a very good one, I think. On extended treks, particularly ones where you need to resupply along the way, food variety is a good think to keep in mind. However, that’s only one facet of a much larger issue: mental fatigue.

    Being alone in the wilderness for an extended period of time can do weird things to your head, even if you’re not totally alone and are part of a group traveling together. The crazy guy who lives alone out in the hills? Well, there’s a perfectly good reason for why he’s got that reputation and it doesn’t have anything to do with what’s in the water. One of my favorite parts in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series is when Arthur Dent emerges from his cave on pre-historic Earth and loudly proclaims to no one in particular that he has decided to go mad.

    We all can relate to mental fatigue suffered due to the drudgery of the mundane, every day tasks of school or work. Imagine if your whole day consisted solely of waking up, walking in a straight line until you got tired, then sleeping on the ground until you get up to do the exact same thing the next day, over and over again. Between that and eating Lembas bread three times a day, every day, its no wonder that Frodo was ready to just phone it in after destroying the Ring, rather than walk all the way back to the Shire. It’s a good thing that the Eagles finished recording Hotel California in time to rescue them.

    I could talk much more about this topic, but I’ll just end by saying that a resource I find very useful and accurate in regard to wilderness survival is the TV show Survivorman with Les Stroud. He goes out into an exotic locale for a week with nothing but a backpack full of camera gear (no crew) and some random supplies to see how well he’ll fare. If its been raining for the last four days straight and he hasn’t eaten for the past two, he’ll tell you straight up that he’s miserable and just wants to leave. Plus his outdoor knowledge is top notch; I highly recommend it.

  6. Under the archway of the stars, near the shadows of looming trees, their branches rustling in the breeze, a tiny campfire crackles and snaps. A tired figure sits nearby, counting the cans left in a rumpled backpack and searching what else is left. And…

    Right! They find a transcript! No toilet paper, but maybe, just maybe, if they rub the pages together a bit to soften them up, they might…

    READ IT! Over here:


    Or in the archives.

    And quit thinking about what that poor post-apocalyptic camper is going to do with the transcript. After all, they don’t know about the red eyes peering out of the underbrush at them. Toilet paper is going to be the least of their worries, all too soon…

  7. This was a great episode! Thanks! My current project is a quest type story and I keep forgetting to use the small setting details. I also forget that the wilderness is a viable source of conflict just as much as the characters. Thus was a helpful reminder.

    Also, I keep hearing Sam Gamgee from the first LotR movie – “everywhere I lay there’s a dirty great root sticking into my back!” ;)

  8. Great episode! Writing great wilderness scenes is a must for a good quest story, but the wilderness doesn’t have to be the traditional forests and plains of western Europe, like Brandon pointed out; if you’ve never left your home planet, Space is the wilderness, or Victorian England, or your creepy neighbor’s basement, etc…. or maybe I am taking it too far. They are certainly parallels, at least. But is this episode about, specifically, the Wilderness (yes) or is it about the whole ‘Write One Thing Well So The Rest Sounds Like You Know What You Are Talking About?’ (Also yes.) The lesson, as always, seems to be Know What You Are Talking About. Perhaps the tagline this week should have been: You’re Out Of Excuses, Now Go Outside. :)

    It would be really cool, maybe next year or after, when the Master Class schedule is over, to bring in more experts on various topics, even if they are not necessarily prolific writers, who could provide more ’14 degree inclination’ insights into areas like, well, the wilderness, or weaponry, or ancient architecture, supernatural mumbo-jumbo, space science, etc. I guess we always have wikipedia, but hearing you guys pick their brains would be a lot more interesting!

  9. Talking of bugs and other vermin. Ants, roaches, mice and rats will get into your food and spare clothing. Not only can they eat you out of your rations, they may carry flees, venom, and feces that spoils food. Oh and once they find your food, they come in swarms and reproduce rather quickly to boot!

  10. Have I mentioned how awesome you guys are?

    I usually listen off my phone, so I don’t get much of a chance to leave comments, but every week I think it: ‘you guys are awesome’.


  11. A friend of mine just returned to town after 300 miles of hiking. Time to extort some answers from him. If I get annoying, I’ll tell him it’s Writing Excuses’ fault.

    I suppose I need to make larger numbers of interesting friends so I have more opportunities like this. Replace “Write what I know” with “Write what they know!”

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