Geography and the Evolution of Your World: Logical Flora et. al.

©Chanté McCoy

green-planet-with-the-animals-in-his-hand-concept-of-ecologyGeography, whether in this world or that of the imagination, provides the grounding from which all else springs: plants, animals, economy, language, religion, health, politics, etc. If you start with geography, not only will you have a topographical map, but a plan for designing the rest of your creation.

All stories are set in a particular place and time. Geography matters in creating that place, even if you’re going to superimpose buildings and roads. It’s not simply the backdrop; geography interacts with the story, almost a character unto itself.

The goal of world building is ultimately to create a coherent, believable world with beings and cultures that are logical extensions. You’re inviting the reader as tourist to come along, and you want the world to be substantial, with plausible details (however bizarre or mundane) that make it come alive.

“Geography” comes from the Greek “geographia,” which translates into “earth describe-write.” How appropriate then, to discuss geography as part of literature. It is not strictly about earth sciences, but also about the man-land relationship (Christopherson 3). Think of any native group on this planet, and you can’t divorce their culture from the land on which they evolved.

Avoiding the Whomping Willow of Implausibility

Plausible plants—“flora,” “vegetation,” the “green stuff”—are the primary focus of this essay. But, since they can’t be divorced from their environment, including the animals around them, we’ll start with the “big picture.”

Start by asking some questions:

  • Terrain: What is the landscape like? Flat, mountainous, water bodies, irrigable, subterranean, volcanic, in the clouds? Draw a map to think it out.
  • Climate: What is the weather like? Hot, cold, dry, wet, harsh, comfortable?
  • Flora: Given this environment, what are the native plants like? Edible, leafy, tall, short, spiny, water-retaining, tasty, dangerous, mobile, intelligent, medicinal? Are they mimicking, trying to blend in, or screaming out how very dangerous they are?
Hummingbird

Which came first? The hummingbird or the flower?

Plants co-evolve with animals, being tasty if their reproduction is dependent on birds and bees for spreading seed, or being protected from consumption by traits such as poison and spines. So, while this essay is primarily about flora, let’s continue to the animals that will subsist on the plants (herbivores) and on each other (carnivores).

  • Fauna: Given this environment, what are the animals like? What are their features, characteristics, abilities, intelligence, life cycles? What are the predator vs. prey relationships, interactions, niches in the water/land/air ecosystems? (For more information, please see Creatures essay.)

Ultimately, you’ll think through the implications of the environment on your sentient races too. How do the people/sentient beings survive? What do they eat? What do they extract from their environment to build their homes, clothes, and tools/technology?

Like filling in a character sheet, come up with as many details as you like. You don’t have to belabor all the possibilities, and certainly you don’t need to spell them all out in the story. They just need to fit in the logic of the construct and give you a tangible sense of place.

You don’t want to fall in love with some fantastical creation simply because “it’s cool,” least you create something that strikes the reader as odd and gives them pause.  If they start pausing, they might put down the book.

A great example of this was recently put forward in a conference session, “Ecology and Evolution in Science Fiction,” presented by Dr. Steven Peck, an evolutionary ecologist at BYU. He showed an excerpt from the 2009 Star Trek film featuring Chris Pine as Captain Kirk. The scene shown: where Kirk is being chased by a saber-toothed yeti creature (a “polarilla”) on an ice planet, only to have an oversized crustacean-looking beast become the threat of the moment.  (You can see the clip at www.trekmovie.com.)  While the polarilla doesn’t raise too many brows (except for a chuckle at its name), the other critter does. It seems an unlikely native resident of a polar environment: no hair for warmth, likely cold blooded (thus dependent on environmental heat sources to be out and about), and too large, likely crushing under its own weight (considering that the gravity seems to be the same as Earth’s). Dr. Peck’s list of illogical design points was longer, but this suffices to illustrate the point.

So, when you’re letting your imagination run wild, keep yourself in check by asking if your creations are a logical, evolutionary extension of their environment.  Why would brightly colored, large-leafed plants grow on an ice planet? Why is there a race evolved with eight legs instead of two? Why do the Illaoreans have two hearts, finned digits, scales, and hawk-eye vision in the dark?

You can’t just say, “Here they are, ta da!” Creations are not islands unto themselves. Their features and characteristics should be appropriate to the environment, with evolutionary advantages. If silly or implausible, then the rest of story will be suspect, held to higher scrutiny. Of course, if you’re going for a humorous read, such as Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, where satire is the primary concern—not believability—go to town with sapient pearwood and the like. Also, some stories based on magic ignore these premises too, hence the Whomping Willow and gilly weed in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. But, otherwise, no one is going to believe that Audrey II of Little Shop of Horrors and Monty Python’s Puking Tree of Mozambique are real.

Red Canyon, UT

Bryce Canyon National Park

Be bold about borrowing from our home planet. If your world is covered in snow, research the poles and the high elevations of the Himalayas. Writing the next Dune? Read up on arid lands and desert cultures. Make a list of the native trees, shrubs, and herbs, as well as crops that are commonly grown. Include descriptions for later reference. Pull up photos too and write up your own descriptions, hopefully something more poetic than “…radial, pedicellate flowers and rhipidia enclosed by large, spathelike bracts…” (the description of the Iridoideae subfamily of Iris in Plant Systematics).

Even if your setting is off-planet, the general rules apply, and this is a good starting point. After all, Earth is the reference point for your readers; let it be one for yourself, too.

You Can’t Divorce Mother Nature

Don’t think you can avoid all of this because your culture is technologically advanced and seemingly divorced from the surrounding landscape. First, it still evolved from something. Secondly, your characters continue to be affected by their environment. They needn’t be eking out a living by scavenging for edible plants, hunting in the woods, or farming, to be the only ones concerned with local geography. Even if they live relatively insulated lives in glass skyscrapers and bubble planes, they are still subject to the forces of Mother Nature.

I’ll use my city and myself to illustrate:

I live on a high semiarid desert surrounded by mountains. The culture is dominated by a religious group, who originally settled the area precisely because it was desert and no one else (excluding Native Americans, of course) laid claim or would likely fight them for it. The local lake, covering about 1,700 square miles, has no run-off; it is highly saline. Therefore, we rely on snow melt filling mountain reservoirs for our water supply. That snow also provides for ample entertainment (skiing, sledding, snow mobiling, and snow angels) as well as supports a thriving ski industry revolving around tourists. Because mountain water is vital to our livelihood, watersheds are protected, meaning I can’t take my dogs into those mountain canyons, lest they defecate. That same water turns the valley green, and we grow lawns that a Virginian would envy. In winter, the valley traps car and industrial emissions in an inversion, creating a thick brown haze, contributing to a high incidence of respiratory problems. Some of our mountains are mined for their high mineral content, with one site inverted into the deepest open-pit mine in the world, and now there are issues with neighborhoods built on the toxic tailings.

That’s just a sampling of how my local environment impacts me and my neighbors. All that despite the fact that most of us live in boxes: homes, cars, offices, schools, churches, and stores. We can’t divorce Mother Nature. So, despite suburbia being, as Bill Vaughan points out, “where the developer bulldozes out the trees, then names the streets after them,” we are still maintaining a relationship, however antagonistic, with “her.”

Floragraphia: The World as We Know It

Planets usually aren’t comprised of one ecology. A range of climates are found from the equator to the poles. Even on Frank Herbert’s Arrakis, there are some variations, with life more comfortable at the poles, and flora is still found: “saguaro, burro bush, date palm, sand verbena, evening primrose, barrel cactus, incense bush, smoke tree, creosote bush …”

Biomes are globally similar ecological regions that share similar plant structures, plant spacing, animals, climate, and weather. The vegetation is classified by plant structures (e.g., trees, grasses, shrubs), leaf types (e.g., broad and needle leaf), and plant spacing (e.g., forest, woodland, savanna).

Contrary to hope, there is no consensus on classifications of biomes. To simplify, I’m going with University of California Museum of Paleontology’s six major biomes:

  • Forest: tropical, temperate, and boreal
  • Grassland: tropical (or savannas) and temperate
  • Desert: hot and dry, semiarid, coastal, and cold
  • Tundra: arctic and alpine
  • Freshwater: ponds and lakes, rivers and streams, and wetlands
  • Marine: oceans, coral reefs, and estuaries

Within a biome, plant evolution is dependent on climate, soil type (land), zone (aquatic), and sun exposure/shade.

Leaves are very telling about the plants and the environment in which they evolved. They developed primarily to capture sunlight for photosynthesis, but the amount of sunlight varies by latitude as well as placement within the vertical niches of a forest, e.g., more light at the canopy versus the forest floor.

Broadleaf refers to leaves being “relatively” broad and flat, versus needle-like. The broader the leaf, the more efficient a solar panel it is, soaking up the sun’s rays. Broadleaf plants tend to be deciduous, shedding their leaves in climates with cold winters or those with seasonal drought.

Needle leaves have a thicker outer coating, a thicker layer of protective wax, and less surface area because of their shape. These features minimize water evaporation, especially important in arid climates or areas with cold winters.

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Joshua Tree National Park

Succulents, such as aloe and cacti, are water-retaining plants adapted to dry climates. Their leaves, if they have any, are water plumped, cylindrical-to-spherical shaped, with most photosynthesis occurring in the stems.

In sum, plants with broad, thin leaves like a good dose of sun for photosynthesis. However, if too much sun or inadequate water, the plants will tend to have small, succulent leaves.  Shade plants have large, broad, flat leaves to capture as much sun as possible.

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To keep this simple, I’ll limit this discussion to one or two examples from each major biome for a quick sampling. These should illustrate what is expected in a given environment, including the types of plants. I’ll include examples from sci-fi and fantasy literature and movies, as well. For further inspiration, the final section will be on strange and unusual plants that we fiction writers would be hard pressed to exceed.

You can then build a world based on one biome, or go for an epic, spanning multiple ones, like J.R.R. Tolkien does in Lord of the Rings or George R.R. Martin in A Song of Ice and Fire. (Also, consider changing your middle initials to R.R. before tackling your opus.)

Tropical Rain Forests: Welcome to the Jungle

You want a lush climate? You can’t go wrong with a tropical rain forest. It is the model for Pandora in Avatar, the island setting in Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, and the South Continent in Anne McCaffery’s Pern series.

Tropical rain forests are found along the equator, up to latitudes 28 degrees north or south. Year-round, these forests enjoy a consistent amount of daylight, temperatures averaging 77˚F, and high precipitation (Christopherson 656). Plant and animal life is diverse and abundant.

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Brugmansia, native to South America, happily growing in San Clemente, CA

With such a concentration of life, ecological niches are distributed vertically rather than horizontally because of the competition for light: forest floor, understory layer, canopy layer, and emergent layer. The forest floor—where only about 1% of sunlight makes it through—is perpetually moist, with rotting fruit and mold, and a web of roots and vines from above. There is no wind on the forest floor, so pollination mostly occurs by insects, other animals, and self-pollination. The soil quality is poor, but rich in litter decay on the surface (Christopherson 658).

 

A thick and continuous leaf canopy of broadleaf evergreen trees, such as mahogany, ebony, and rosewood, tops the forest. Palms and bamboo may grow too. Tree trunks tend to be smooth and slender with thin bark and buttressed by woody flanks that grow from the root system to stabilize the tall trees. Usually no branches grow on the lower two-thirds of the trees.

Lianas climb the trees, and orchids, bromeliads, and ferns attach to them too, deriving their nutrients from the air and rain.

As with all the biomes, there are variations on theme. With tropical forests, subclassifications include lowland evergreen, semi-evergreen seasonal, montane, and flooded forests.

Boreal (and Montane) Forests: Winter is Coming

Staying with the forest theme, let’s go further north (or into higher altitudes). George R.R. Martin did in his Song of Ice and Fire series. North of the Wall is a boreal forest with pine-covered hills and snow-capped mountains.

(Other well-known forests featured in sci fi and fantasy—J.R.R. Tolkien’s Fangorn Forest and Lothlórien, J.K. Rowling’s Forbidden Forest, and the forest moon of Endor in Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi—are temperate forests. Elves, in particular, seem to prefer these types of forests.)

In comparison to other biomes, boreal forests have relatively low biodiversity.

Fireweed

Big Cottonwood Canyon, UT

Boreal (“northern”) forests comprise the largest biome in the world. They are largely made up of needleleaf trees, as are the montane forests at higher elevations. A more open form of forest is the taiga that transitions to arctic and subarctic regions. Sometimes, “taiga” is used to refer to this biome in general. Examples include the Canadian and Alaskan forests, Rockies, Sierra Nevada, Alps, and Himalayas (at lower elevations).

Areas inside the Arctic Circle have “midnight sun” in mid-summer and “polar night” in mid-winter. Snow may remain on the ground for as long as nine months in the northernmost areas. Some regions experience permafrost which is soil at or below the freezing point for two or more years.

Larch, a deciduous needleleaf, and cone-producing evergreens dominate boreal forests. Some small-leaf deciduous trees may be in the mix, as well as berry-producing shrubs and ground cover.

Boreal trees tend to be shallow rooted due to the thin soil. Some alter their biochemistry to harden their roots during the winter, making them less susceptible to freezing. The narrow conical shape of evergreens helps them shed snow. Thin needles (less surface area) minimizes water loss, and the darker green color increases absorption of the sunlight.

The montane forests of the Sierra Nevada are notable for the majestic giant sequoias that grow in 70 isolated groves; they are the Earth’s largest living things in terms of biomass, growing 28 feet in diameter and 270 feet tall. They’re also among the longest living; the largest is estimated to be 3,500 years old (Christopherson 666).

Grasslands, Where Everything Happens Under the Open Sky

The expanse of grasslands—North American prairies, African savannas, South American pampas, the European steppes—captures the imagination, particularly in terms of freedom and wildness.  Think of buffalo-hunting Native Americans, hearty pioneers, Genghis Khan, and the exotic herds of gazelles and zebras.

In fantasy, the sprawling, flat Dothraki Sea of Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire comes to mind. And Rohan, a.k.a. the Riddermark, a grassland north of Gondor, in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Both of these temperate grasslands are home to independent horsemen.

Grasslands largely fall into two broad categories: tropical (savannas) and temperate. In both, grasslands dominate, interrupted by trees and shrubs. The complex root systems hold the soil in place. The soil is rich in humus, and so farmlands tend to crop up in grassland biomes.

Larger plants are subdued by fires and large, wild and domesticated herbivores (which in turn are fed upon by large carnivores). In the savannas, fires occur annually and, if early in the dry season, are beneficial to plant propagation. Mature trees can survive the fires, but their seedlings may be killed.

Man has played a major role in creating and extending grasslands with deforestation, initiated fires, agriculture, and introduction of exotic plants and domesticated grazers.

In terms of plants, grasses reign with some deciduous trees and brush. Since the native nature of most grasslands have been altered, the plants I’ll mention here are from the African savannas: the flat topped acacia, the solitary baobab, clumped grasses, and bush thickets. Elephant grass grows quickly in the rainy season up to 16 feet (Christopherson 664). Plant leaves tend to be small and thick, waxy, or hairy. Both the baobab and acacia lose leaves in the dry season to conserve moisture.

The baobab—the largest “succulent” in the world—can grow up to 98 feet high with a trunk diameter of 47 feet, and some are reputed to be thousands of years old. Their fruits (“monkey bread”) and leaves are edible.  Baobabs store water inside their trunks, which are covered with a fibrous bark (Shales). My first fictional encounter with these hearty trees was in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, where the prince weeds out baobabs that grow on his asteroid.

Warm Deserts á la Mode

The harshness of deserts lends this biome to many metaphors: emptiness, isolation, death.

Desert residents have to be tough, resilient, and resourceful, which might explain the attraction of deserts to writers, hence the deserts of A Canticle for Leibowitz (Walter M. Miller Jr.), Arrakis in Dune (Frank Herbert), Tatooine in Star Wars, Dorne in Ice and Fire, and Calormen in T.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia.

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Succulent found near San Clemente, CA

Deserts aren’t just sand. And they aren’t dead stretches of land. Aridity defines them. They range from bare ground graduating into xerophytic plants, including succulents, cacti, and dry shrubs. Deserts have a high amount of plant diversity adapted to their conditions, being drought- or salt-tolerant, having deep root systems, or storing water in the leaves, roots, and stems. Another adaptation is spiny leaves developed to lessen loss of water.

Deserts aren’t necessarily hot either. Cold deserts, such as Antarctica, can be covered in snow or ice where the frozen water is unavailable to plant life (Crystal).

What defines a desert is the extremely low amount of precipitation, which may be exacerbated by evaporation. Deserts take up about a third of the Earth’s land surface (Christopherson 670), but sand only covers about 20 percent of those (David). The largest hot desert is the Sahara in northern Africa, covering almost 3.5 million square miles and 13 countries (Geology.com). With an average daily temperature around 100.4 ˚F (NASA), deserts are subject to the highest temperatures on Earth, with the record at 136.4 ˚F in the Sahara (World Meterological Organization). The daily temperatures range wildly because, on account of little humidity to block the sun’s rays, twice the solar radiation of humid regions is soaked up during the day, and almost twice as much heat is lost at night.

The saguaro cactus of the Sonoran Desert most famously symbolizes the desert biome. The “trees” of the desert, these upright, multi-armed sentinels grow slowly but may live up to 200 years. At ten years, they are less than 10 inches high. Saguaros first bloom around 75 years. When fully grown, they are 50 feet tall and weigh as much as 10 tons (Encyclopædia Britannica).

Many of the smaller, specialized plants are equally interesting. For example, lithrops are desert succulents that look like unappetizing rocks.

The Great White Tundra…At Least Until Summer

Having done the hottest biome, let’s balance with the coldest: the tundra. It’s the biome graduating from the boreal forests, losing trees in the process. Tundra comes from the Lappish (Kildin Sami) term tūndâr meaning “treeless mountain tract” (Glossary.com) In winter, it is the white expanse featured in the far north of Phillip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, Narnia during the Age of Winter, and the Hoth of Star Wars and many other fictional ice planets.

On planet Earth, the tundra falls into two broad categories: arctic and alpine. The arctic (including Antarctic) is known for its cold, desert-like conditions. Annual precipitation, including melting snow, is 6 to 10 inches (NASA). Beneath a thin layer of soil, permafrost prevents tree growth.

Bogs and ponds may form during the warmer months, when water saturates the upper surface, providing water for the 1,700 kinds of plants in the arctic and subarctic (University of California Museum of Paleontology). The short plants—low shrubs, sedges, reindeer mosses, liverworts, and grasses—are adapted to the sweeping winds. Most reproduce by division rather than by flowering.

Alpine tundra is found further south, in high mountainous elevations. Examples are found in the Alps, Pyrenees, Rockies, Sierra Nevada, Sierra Madre, Andes, Rift Mountains of Africa, and Tibetan Plateau. Again, the plants are short, but they include some of the most beautiful wild flowers to be found.

Freshwater Worlds Where Weesa Going to Get Wet

Aquatic biomes open up the possibilities for exotic worlds, alien to our experience. In the freshwater realm, I could only come up with one off the top of my head: the hydrostatic bubble city of Otoh Gunga on Naboo and its amphibious gungans in Star Wars: Phantom Menace. Water worlds are divided into vertical zones, warmer and better lit at the top, colder and darker toward the bottom. More plant life is situated at the top and along the edges, taking advantage of those solar rays.

In ponds and lakes, the zones include the littoral, limnetic, and profundal. The littoral is the top layer, nearer the shore, and vegetation includes several species of algae and rooted and floating aquatic plants, such as water lilies. The near-surface open water, in the limnetic zone, is dominated by plankton. In the profundal zone, the deep water is colder, denser, and poorly lit. During summer, the water temperature varies from 72˚F at the top to 39 ˚F at the bottom; in winter, the iced top is 0 ˚ F, and the bottom is warmer at 4 ˚F (University of California Museum of Paleontology).

In rivers and streams—with their fast moving waters—the environments are more radical between the headwaters and the mouth. The headwaters are colder, clearer with higher oxygen counts; the mouth is murkier with sediment, more sluggish, and warmer as it drains to a lake or the sea. In the middle, diversity increases at the widest points, with more green plants and algae.

Marshes, swamps, and bogs are wetlands: standing water that supports aquatic plants, including water lilies, cattails, sedges, and cypress. Wetlands have the most biological diversity of any ecosystem. Some of this flora is impressive: the Victoria water lily (Victoria amazonica) can grow up to 10 feet in diameter, from an underwater stem 26 feet in length (Guinness World Records). Its 12-inch flower is white and “female” (receptive to pollen) the first night it blooms, becoming pink and “male” (producing pollen) the second night (The Living Rainforest). Meesa thinks thisa is neato.

Marine: Into the Deep

As a fan of snorkeling, I think the most intriguing world possibilities are found in the oceans. Most existing sci-fi and fantasy stories delving into the deep seem to be about exploration, but some tackle underwater civilizations: underwater domed cities in Isaac Asmiov’s Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus, the oceanic moon of Shora in Joan Slonczewski’s Door Into Ocean, and, of course, the mythical and fictional Atlantis inspirations. And don’t forget about the mermaids.

Oceans cover nearly 71 percent of the earth’s surface (Encyclopædia Britannica). Again, like in the lakes and rivers, the ocean is divided up into zones: intertidal, pelagic, abyssal, and benthic, going deeper and darker, respectively.

The primary ocean flora are plankton and seaweed, with the remarkable kelp forests being the largest. Plankton and seaweed are comprised of colonial algae, which may be the most important plant on earth. Why? Because it produces 70-80 percent of the planet’s oxygen (Hall).

Coral reefs are found in warmer, shallower waters, along continents, islands, and atolls. Reefs are formed from algae and the exoskeletons of coral polyps which are animals.

Life is Stranger than Fiction, Or Inspiration for Yours

While the biome discussion provides a broad swath of plants to expect, some unexpected species have evolved that might prove a starting point for designing your exotics.  For your consideration, may I present the carnivorous, moving, resurrecting, warm-blooded, super-sized, and long-living plants of Earth…

Carnivorous

On Earth, there are over 670 different carnivorous plants (The International Carnivorous Plant Society), using pitfalls, snap traps, flypaper, and vacuums to trap insects for their nutrients. Pitcher plants are colorful tubes that attract insects and then trap them in the fluid at their base, drowning, and then absorbing them. Sundews trap insects in a sweet, sticky secretion, and some ensure entrapment with their tentacles. The Venus flytrap of the Carolinas employs a rapid-action bear trap approach, snapping shut on unsuspecting prey. “Feed me, Seymour!”

Moving

A couple dozen plants visibly move. Like the Venus flytrap. Some move to spread their seed or pollen, such as the exploding cucumber, trigger plants that slap pollen on flying insects, and Catesedum orchids (“Rapid Plant Movement”). Still others move in self-defense, such as the Mimosa pudica and Codariocalyx motorius. (Check these out on YouTube.) The plants on Pandora seem to take some cues here. There’s also a walking tree with stilt roots, but its ability to actually move to a sunnier spot may be a myth. Still, an interesting idea (and it shall be named Treebeard).

Resurrecting

Yes, there is a plant that appears brittle, brown, and dead but will come back to life again after 100 years. The resurrection fern plays ‘possum when without water. When it finally gets the elixir of life, it springs back to a lively shade of green within 24 hours (“Pleopeltis Polypodioides”). I’m thinking a zombie plant is waaay overdue on the literary scene.

Warm-blooded

Well, in this case, it’s called thermogenesis, and no blood is involved. A thermogenic ability allows plants to increase their temperature to that greater than the surrounding air. Carrion-smelling plants, like arums and the appropriately named carrion flower (Rafflesia), tend to have this ability, which allows them to further project their lovely scent to pollinators (like flies). The warmer plants may also be attractive to insects when temperatures drop. This also allows some plants in colder climes to push up through patches of snow in spring, like the skunk cabbage (“Thermogenic Plants”).

Super-sized

The largest known organism in the world is a 106-acre grove of male Aspen (Populus tremuloides) in Utah connected by a single root system. Nicknamed “Pando,” each stem above the ground is genetically identical (DeWoody). The largest tree by volume is the Giant Sequoia, with the record-setting “General Sherman” tree at 630,096 board feet (Guinness World Records). The tallest is a Coastal Redwood at 379 feet (Guinness World Records). The largest flowers are the stinky Rafflesia arnoldii at three feet across and weighing 24 pounds (Encyclopædia Britannica), and Titan Arum, reaching over 10 feet in height (Guinness World Records). Do you want fries with that?

If your planet has less gravitational pull, you can go larger. Think Avatar.

Long-living

Plants can hang out for a long time. The oldest known tree, Methuselah, is a Great Basin bristlecone pine that has logged a Biblical 4,774 years on this planet (Miller). Pando (see “Super-sized” above), which is considered a clonal colony, could be as old as one million years (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development). Welwitschia mirabilis is an interesting species to check out just to see this alien-looking relic of the Jurassic period, with some individuals suspected to be 2,000 years old (Conifers.org). Think of all they’ve seen.

Conclusion

In a nutshell, with a grasp of biology and evolutionary concepts, you can design and populate your fictional world so it feels true. Your story rests on the underpinnings of your world. After all, there are only so many plot lines, revolving around love, hate, loss, revenge. But the details will transport the reader, make them see and believe your characters and their reality.

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—. “Tropical Rainforest.” 08 May 2012. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online. Web. 09 May 2012. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/606576/tropical-rainforest&gt;.

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—. “Largest Water Lily.” n.d. Guinness World Records.com. Web. 9 May 2012. <http://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/12000/largest-water-lily&gt;.

—. “Tallest Bloom.” n.d. Guinness World Records. Web. 9 May 2012. <http://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/3000/tallest-bloom&gt;.

—. “Tallest Living Tree.” n.d. Guinness World Records. Web. 9 May 2012. <http://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/10000/tallest-tree-living&gt;.

Hall, Dr. Jack. “The Most Important Organism?” 12 September 2011. Ecology. Web. 9 May 2012. <http://www.ecology.com/2011/09/12/important-organism/&gt;.

Herbert, Frank. Dune. Philadelphia and New York: Chilton Books, 1965. Print.

Little Shop of Horrors. Dir. Frank Oz. Perf. Rick Moranis, Ellen Greene and Steve Martin. Warner Bros, 1986. Film.

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Miller Jr., Walter M. Canticle for Leibowitz. Philadelphia & New York: J.B. Lippincott $ Co., 1960. Print.

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NASA. “Desert.” n.d. Earth Observatory. Web. 9 May 2012. <http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Experiments/Biome/biodesert.php&gt;.

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Peck, Steven. “Ecology and Evolution in Science Fiction.” Life, The Universe, and Everything 30; The Marion K. “Doc” Smith Symposium on Science Fiction and Fantasy. Utah Valley University. Orem, 10 February 2012. Presentation.

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*****

Eighth Day Genesis; A Worldbuilding Codex for Writers and Creatives

First published in Eighth Day Genesis: A Worldbuilding Codex for Writers and Creatives, May 2012 (ed. by Sabrina Klein, Alliteration Ink); a 2013 Origins Award Nominee

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Geography and the Evolution of Your World: Flora Et. Al.

Eighth Day Genesis; A Worldbuilding Codex for Writers and Creatives

paperback & Kindle
*****
Featuring “Geography and the Evolution of Your World: Flora Et. Al.,” by Chanté McCoy

Geography, whether in this world or that of the imagination, provides the grounding from which all else springs: plants, animals, economy, language, religion, health, politics, etc. To build coherent, believable worlds, you need creations that are logical, evolutionary extensions of their environment.

Q & A: In Case You’re Curious

I recently did a Q&A with Alliteration Ink, the publisher of the Crimson Pact series,  Spec the Halls, and Eighth Day Genesis: A Worldbuilding Codex, in which I’ve been published. Here’s the write-up from that virtual round table.

Q ~ How do you cope with writer’s block?

A ~ Staring at my computer rarely cures my moments of writer’s block. I become frustrated or bored, then wander off and do laundry. The best way for me to break through and brainstorm is to go on a hike by myself or to walk my dogs in the neighborhood. I hit on an idea and – by the time I return home – I have a scene practically written. Once I walk in the door, watch out: I’m hell-bent on getting those ideas on paper before they flutter away.

Q ~  Do you have any formal training? Did you ever take courses in writing? Did they help?

A ~Yes, yes, and yes. While you don’t need to study English to be a writer, I went that path. My bachelor’s and master’s degrees strengthened my understanding of the language and grammar, taught me to think analytically and synthesize information, and exposed me to the classics and the works of great writers. Equally important, those programs gave me an opportunity to meet others passionate about the craft, and those interactions strengthened my resolve to pursue writing as a career.

Yet, the best training has been just putting pen to paper over and over again. I’ve been writing since grammar school, tackling poems, short stories, newspaper articles, and then onward to corporate documents to pay the bills.  No one needs to have a bachelor’s, let alone a master’s, to be a writer. They only need the drive and the willingness to learn about the craft (including grammar!!).

Q ~ What is the most demeaning thing said about you as a writer?

A ~I’ll go with a broad interpretation of this question, and list the most common “demeaning” responses to my being a writer. In fact, on account of these responses, I’m generally reluctant to tell strangers that write for a living because they invariably say/ask:

1) “Written anything I’ve read?” As in, it must not be terribly good or important, if they haven’t. Besides, how would I know what they’ve read? This question also assumes that writers only write fiction. I write for the corporate world, producing technical documents, marketing copy, web content, etc.: writing I’m certain they haven’t read.

2) “Oh, you should write my life story!” or “I have a story you should write.” Then, more often than not, they follow up with said story without preamble. Really? No payment is ever offered. Perhaps they worry I don’t have good enough ideas of my own.

3) “Yeah? I’m going to write a novel too.” I believe we all have stories to tell, and I salute anyone who takes on the task and sees it to completion. But, when I get this response, it seems to be dismissive of the time, effort, and skill involved, like any monkey can do it.  In fact, these same folks are generally not interested in discussing what I write. In sum, their response is like saying, “whatever.”

Q ~ Are the names of your characters important? How?

A ~Names are important because of associations. As a reader, I try to understand why a writer chooses a character’s name. What does that name say about the character? Is it appropriate to the time and setting? Is there some underlying etymology that’s important in the story? Is it a word play? But, more often than not, I think the choice should be subtle and not beat the reader over the head.

Q ~ Do you worry about writing “genre” fiction as opposed to “literature”?

A ~No, I don’t worry because each has its benefits and attractions. They also overlap.

Genre fiction (fantasy, horror, crime, etc.) is also known as popular fiction because it has a wider audience. Thus, more publishers are interested in putting out genre fiction. As a writer, I’d be foolish to snub it in lieu of “serious” fiction that isn’t so easily categorized. Besides, genre fiction is a lot of fun to write, and good writing isn’t limited to critically acclaimed literary fiction.

Eighth Day Genesis

Featuring "Geography and the Evolution of Your World: Flora Et. Al.," by Chanté McCoy

Featuring “Geography and the Evolution of Your World: Flora Et. Al.,” by Chanté McCoy

Alliteration Ink recently published a fantastic resource for writers: Eighth Day Genesis: A Worldbuilding Codex for Writers and Creatives.  Featuring essays from 21 working writers, including the likes of novelists Tim Waggoner and Maurice Broaddus, Eighth Day Genesis covers the gamut of issues in building a plausible world, from “ecosystems, creatures, and legal systems to the ways you can most effectively share your world with your audience.”

Or, to borrow from my essay, “Geography and the Evolution of Your World: Logical Flora et.al.”:  “The goal of world building is ultimately to create a coherent, believable world with beings and cultures that are logical extensions. You’re inviting the reader as tourist to come along, and you want the world to be substantial, with plausible details (however bizarre or mundane) that make it come alive.”

The focus of my essay is flora. It’s not often one gets to write about the Puking Tree of Mozambique. So you can imagine how pleased I was to have the opportunity to discuss the very subject…in the larger context of building worlds with plants that are conceivable within their environment. Actually, the Puking Tree doesn’t fit the bill, but Treebeard and the plants of Pandora do.

While I touch on some of the sillier ones put forward in well-known stories (usually set in magical worlds) — Terry Pratchett’s sapient pearwood, J.K. Rowling’s Whomping Willow and gilly weed,  Audrey II of Little Shop of Horrors, etc. — I primarily wax on the types of plants one finds within given biomes and their evolutionary benefits. I use our planet as the launching point for this discussion. After all, Earth is the reference point for our readers; it should be for ourselves, too, however fantastic our creations.

I include examples from sci-fi and fantasy literature and movies, as well. For further inspiration, the final section covers strange and unusual plants that we fiction writers would be hard pressed to exceed: the carnivorous, moving, resurrecting, warm-blooded, super-sized, and long-living plants of planet Earth.

Flora is but one topic discussed in Eighth Day Genesis. Contents include:

Donald Bingle – Cause Ways
Maurice Broaddus – The Religious Order
Rachel Faulk – Developing a Layered, Credible, and Compelling Government
Paul Genesse – The World as a Character
Kerrie Hughes – Magic Systems
Addie King – Building Believable Legal Systems in Science Fiction and Fantasy
Rosemary Laurey – Putting Words in your Character’s Mouth
Ramsey Lundock – Creatures and Domesticated Animals
Sue Penkivech – Why Just Saying “Hitler Won” Isn’t Enough
Aaron Rosenberg – The Descartian Dilemma, or Hey, Where’d Everybody Go?
Matthew Wayne Selznick – History for History’s Sake, or No One Cares Who the Emperor
Was 500 Years Ago.  Unless They Should
Janine Spendlove – Crafting Urban Landscapes
Graham Storrs – Forming a Government
Kelly Swails – Making a Consistent World
Patrick Tomlinson – Building Worlds in a Hostile Universe
Tim Waggoner – A Sense of Style
Kathy Watness – The Work of Our Hands
Bryan Young – The Art of Restraint
Emily (EA) Younker – Shaping Societies:  Technology and Its Effects