Writing Excuses 10.15: Worldbuilding Wilderness with Wes Chu
Key Points: Quests often involves time in either the alien or fantastic wilderness. This should be an interesting part of the story, so spend time thinking it through. Sleeping on a slope! Packing toilet paper, or rock climbing equipment. Altitude or other stress. Bugs! Walking in the dark. Holding candles or torches. What do you pack, what is life outside like, carry or forage food? How much experience does your character have with the outdoors? Think about different parts of the world. Think about variety, in food, in experience, and make your writing interesting and exciting.
[Mary] Season 10, Episode 15.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Worldbuilding Wilderness.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we are lost and cold.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Brandon] And, we have once again special guest star Wesley Chu.
[Brandon] Last time you were on, I didn’t let you pitch your books. Why don’t you just tell us, not about the new one, which we’re going to talk about later, but you wrote… What are you known for?
[Wesley] I’m best known for The Lives of Tao, which was my debut in 2013, and currently have two books in the series out, Lives of Tao and The Depths of Tao out. Then I have the third book in the trilogy, The Rebirth of Tao coming out…
[Brandon] Just came out.
[Wesley] Just came out?
[Brandon] When this is airing, the week before, probably.
[Wesley] Yes. It just came out!
[Brandon] You actually pitched this episode to us. You just went camping on Kilimanjaro.
[Brandon] Which is totally daunting and awesome.
[Wesley] Camping is probably not the right word for it, but there was a lot of camping and not showering involved.
[Brandon] You mentioned that in a lot of fantasy and science fiction books, people gotta go on quests. They gotta leave and head out into the… Either the alien wilderness or the fantastical wilderness and things like this. Not a lot of people spend time as writers thinking about how that’s going to be a really interesting part of their story. It’s almost like as writers we’re like we gotta get through all that stuff because it’s going to be wet and raining, we know that. But that’s going to be the bulk of a lot of these stories and here we are not spending time worldbuilding it.
[Wesley] Well, what happened was I had… I think it was at day five of the trek up the mountain where I was sleeping in a tent that was… It was like a 14% incline.
[Wesley] So [you’re in] a sleeping bag which is kind of slippery and you fall asleep. I woke up in the middle of the night literally because my tent… Like my wife and I were… We slid down the entire length of the tent because of the incline…
[Wesley] And we were uprooting the thing because we were rolling on top of it.
[Wesley] That’s when I was thinking like, “Why does nobody in any of my books ever have this problem?”
[Brandon] Right. They’ll have… The sand people…
[Howard] See, that’s a great middle of act two fail portion of the try-fail cycles. We’re out here having an adventure and what did we manage to do? We managed to roll downhill in a knot of nylon.
[Mary] Well, this is also when we’re talking about the… Back in the episode where we talked about the character sliders, when you can do something like that to make your character a lot more sympathetic because they’re dealing with… They’re very competent in all of these other areas but not sleeping on a 14% incline.
[Brandon] Yeah. It’s really been interesting to me, thinking about this episode, about how little we sometimes spend on the rest of the world. We talk about the civilization we’re going to be spending in, but what’s interesting, what are… What is it like in your world for people to sleep outside?
[Wesley] [In fact, we make it like…] When I was packing for this trip, and there’s a whole checklist of stuff you gotta pack, I brought one roll of toilet paper. Twitter skewered me because they’re like, “What kind of hubris do you think you have, only bringing one roll of toilet paper?” They were completely right. So I… None of my characters have ever packed toilet paper.
[Mary] Yeah. Or dealt with it in any way. Which is fine with me, I am completely fine with not reading that particular aspect. I’m just going to say…
[Brandon] But you know, we talk about on the podcast about how a small detail can make everything come alive in your worldbuilding and in your storytelling. This is one of Dan’s favorite things to talk about, is how if you can get one little thing right, everyone’s going to assume that the macroscopic scale is right. When it comes to worldbuilding, this is a perfect way to approach it. If they pack one specific thing, that you’re like, “Oh. If they’re remembering to pack the toilet paper, then they’ve got everything else.” When they pull out the thing that they really need, the rock climber’s hammer or whatever it is in your world they would specifically need, they’re like, “Yeah. They packed the toilet paper. This is something that the author is thinking about what they would have with them.”
[Dan] When you mention things like rock climbing equipment, that’s a great way of adding competence to your character as well. If they know that they’re going to be going up a mountain, and they can’t just walk on top of snowdrifts like Legolas, they’re going to have some climbing gear. If they pack that in advance, then you go, “Oh, well, that’s very clever of them.”
[Howard] I think… Where were we, Wes, when you said you were going to Kilimanjaro? Because I remember talking to you…
[Mary] It was ConFusion.
[Wesley] It was ConFusion, yeah.
[Howard] No, but it was… Was it ConFusion a year ago, when you…
[Wesley] Oh, no.
[Howard] Well, because there was a time when you were… You said, “Like I just found out, hey, I’m going to go to Kilimanjaro.” I asked, “Well, how tall is it?” You told me, and I kind of was afraid for you. Because I know what those high altitudes can do. This did not sound like a two week trip. This sounded like something that you go and do and die.
[Howard] Well, you’re here. You lived. That makes me very happy. What was the change in altitude like?
[Wesley] [let me see… I still] That was another thing that I was actually thinking about, is when I was… I mean, the altitude is 19,000 feet at the top. At one point, I think right around like 17,000 feet, my resting heart rate was about 130. So my resting heart rate was usually at what I do when I work out. I’m a culp… I make this mistake myself, when I have scenes where my main characters are in some kind of like dangerous climate or in outer space or whatever, I might mention it. Oh, yeah, he’s hard of breathing. Then that’s all I have. He goes on with his merry way. When in reality, because of that, it will actually be affecting you every step of the way.
[Dan] My favorite sleeping outside scene is in the movie Ladyhawke where it’s raining and it’s horrible and the guy just leans down against a tree and pulls a [branch] over his head, holding his broadsword in his lap. The horse is not even unsaddled. It’s just I’m good for the night. I think, “No. Every single possible thing you could get wrong, you just got wrong.” That guy wouldn’t be able to walk straight the next day. His sword would be rusted and ruined. The horse would be so mad and wouldn’t let anyone ride him. You have to think about all these things to make it plausible.
[Wesley] And the bugs.
[Mary] The bugs. Yes. Yes, bugs and humidity. One of the things that we did at one of the Writing Excuses retreats… It was at my parents’ house which is on 13 wooded acres. So I grew up in the woods a lot. A lot of our writers are city folks. So we took them outside. I took them to a fairly level, straight section of the property in the woods and turned off the flashlights. Waited for the eyes to adjust, and I said, “Okay, now walk forward. Now how do you think you would fare running through the woods in the dark?” They’re all like, “Yeah, we would be dead.” Inst…
[Howard] Monster would eat us.
[Mary] First step, sprained ankle. Second step, contusion from hitting the tree. Then the other one that we did was we had, and this is actually something I recommend you guys try, because you can do this if you can find someplace without a ton of light pollution. But you go outside with a candle. If you carry the candle in front of you, you are completely blind. It’s the only thing you can see. So you have to hold it off to the side. Then you have to move slowly so the thing doesn’t blow out.
[Brandon] I’ve seen a YouTube video [that swears at] a story and talks about torches and how you would hold a torch, which is away from your face, behind you, so that you can see. Very interesting.
[Howard] Not in front of you so that your face is well lit for the cameras?
[Brandon] Yes. Exactly.
[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week, which is…
[Wesley] The Rebirth of Tao.
[Brandon] Tell us about this book.
[Wesley] So this is the last book in the Tao trilogy, involving Roen Tan and his symbiotic alien, Tao. It’s been many years since the events of the first two books. Because I didn’t kill enough characters in the first two books, we’re going to tie everything together and they might or might not have a happy ending as the evil alien faction vies for world domination.
[Brandon] Wonderful. That is fantastic.
[Howard] If you go to audiblepodcast.com/excuse, you can start a free 30-day trial membership. But Rebirth of Tao might not be out, depending on the date at which you’re listening. But The Lives of Tao and The Depths of Tao are there. You wouldn’t want to listen to Rebirth first. Of course, you can pick up… If you have listened to… You can go anywhere and grab Rebirth right now, which you should do.
[Brandon] Thank you very much. Thanks for being on the podcast, Wesley.
[Wesley] Thanks for having me, guys.
[Brandon] Now, what I’ve been taking notes on here while we’re talking is things that our listeners, if they want to do some worldbuilding for their wilderness, might want to look at. The first one was, what do your characters pack to go out in the wilderness? The second one, I said, is what is rough? Living… Going outside, what is dangerous or difficult that is not in ours? Even if it’s just it’s so hilly that you’re on a 14% incline… Yeah, you could find that in our world, but it’s not something someone will think about. Bugs. What kind of bugs and insects? What other things can we suggest that a…
[Dan] How big are the mosquitoes on your planet?
[Brandon] What can our listeners… They’re trying to write a good wilderness…
[Howard] How much food do you need to carry versus how much food are you actually going to be able to forage? I took a wilderness survival class in Florida, and I realized that boy, if I was in the right part of Florida, I could go kind of as far as I wanted, because I knew how to find lots of food all year round. I got to Utah and realized I’m a dead man. They are completely different places.
[Mary] That was one of the problems that I had with the Hunger Games, actually, was that all of her wilderness experience was in a completely different geographic area. But… So one of the things that… But that actually was something that she does well there, is that her character had a lot of experience being outside. So one of the things that I would also be looking at, in addition to the wilderness, is what is your character’s relationship to the outdoors? Because that’s going to affect the kind of blisters that they get, how heavy the pack is, how much they are oppressed by the humidity, like we’re in… As we’re recording this, we are in Chicago, and it is 7° outside. On Sunday… And last week it was like negative something. Sunday, my husband and I walked outside and said, “Oh, what a lovely day.” It was 30°. It was still below freezing.
[Dan] But, now, a really extreme example of this is Dune. Where the wilderness plays a huge role and their preparation for it plays a huge role. It does talk about not just what do we pack, we need to have a stillsuit, but how do you put on the stillsuit so that it doesn’t cause blisters and all of these things. So maybe because it’s so extreme, you can kind of see the way that he deals with all these different realities.
[Brandon] Excellent. Also playing into this would of course be your ecology. Which we haven’t touched on, but it is an important part of this. I often say worldbuilding is the place where as a writer, particularly in science fiction and fantasy, I think you should be stretching the most. That doesn’t mean you should avoid writing the type of story you want to write. If what you want to write is an analog to something in our world, that’s fine. But you should be pushing yourself to come up with things that are distinctive, interesting, things like the 14% incline, or going even further with a strange ecology and things like this. There’s a reason why, when we talked about story structure, we talked about kind of these archetypes, these tools of story structure, because we found those can be very successful. Things that don’t follow that can be very interesting still, but most stories are going to have this beginning, middle, end.
[Dan] Your ecology that you use in your fantasy world doesn’t even have to be weird, but at least take the chance to step outside of Europe. Maybe they’re traveling through Kilimanjaro and the un’goro goro crater. Like something inspired by Tanzania, or by Malaysia, or by whatever, instead of just oh, good, Germany again.
[Brandon] I think this is where you should push herself as writers. I think that this is an area that there’s still a lot of room to explore. In all the various forms of science fiction and fantasy.
[Mary] While I’m usually saying that in fact you don’t need to go and experience stuff to be able to write about it, I’m going to say that actually taking some time to go out and camp someplace where there’s not a lot of light pollution is worthwhile, because that’s something you can apply to a lot of different aspects of your writing.
[Dan] I was doing a Skype visit to a school a month ago. They… One of the questions they asked was, “Partials, the characters are always traveling in the wilderness, and you seem to know so much about camping and about how to survive in the middle of nowhere. How do you know all of that?” I happened to be… I’m a scoutmaster. I was wearing my uniform, because I was about to leave and go. So I just kind of panned the camera down and said, “Well, I have a lot of experience with that.”
[Brandon] Excellent. Wesley, any last words about things you experienced when you are doing this you didn’t expect?
[Wesley] That I didn’t expect?
[Brandon] Or that people get wrong?
[Wesley] One thing that I never realized how much I missed was first time, first couple of days of… Obviously, you only bring along a certain amount of food with you to the trip. So we had ginger tea, certain African foods, and what they consider Western foods. That was great, it was fantastic. By day six of eating the exact same thing, people weren’t eating. It’s something that… Variety of food…
[Brandon] That’s really interesting.
[Wesley] And how that affects [your psyche?] Because we were losing track of days. We were… People were actually… Would rather be weak then eat the exact same damn banana over and over again. So, I mean, think about what your people, what your characters, are packing, because that… If you’re on a quest, and you’re only eating the exact same… One thing at a time, then…
[Brandon] Excellent. That’s a really good point. We are out of time on this podcast. I actually am forcing Wes to do our writing prompt as well.
[Brandon] So what is the writing prompt?
[Wesley] This is an exercise I like to do a lot. Take a short story or a thing that you’ve already written. Take the two main characters… Take the main character and the villain. Swap their personalities and write what happens to them.
[Brandon] Wow. That’s a cool exercise. All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.