Sunday, January 29, 2012

Worldbuilding by Drawing on Experience

For days now, I've agonized over how to set the scene for the characters in my latest story. I needed them to be trapped in a no-way-out situation. A place where they would have no choice but to make a stand and fight for their lives.

This necessitated a change in the physical landscape of the story's world. What to do, what to do?!
I had set 'Augi the Brave' in a medium sized town that was a bit isolated but still big enough to warrant a lot of traffic passing through. That meant being on a major highway with a railroad. 

So, there are the entrances/exits from town. I added a few backroads and hunting trails to give them more options but I hadn't really thought about water. The place I live now doesn't have major rivers, streams, swampy areas etc. so it hasn't been in the front of my consciousness.
Snow has been the major obstacle to getting around in the area.

But snow, if one is determined enough, can be gotten through or around by various means.

Rivers, however, are a different animal altogether. They grow with the rainstorm and shrink in a drought. The more rain, the more dangerous even the smallest creek becomes.

The area I grew up in  is completely different than where I live now. It's close to the Gulf of Mexico. There are a lot of rivers and streams, ponds, lakes, and low lying areas that are beautiful, green fields---at least until it rains. When the rainy season starts everyone watches the local rivers with a wary eye.
The land is prone to floods. Normally empty gullies fill with rushing water, bayous flow past fishing docks, tangling trot lines and pushing debris into the quiet places. 
Locals haul in their boats and canoes and store them out of the way. They plan alternate routes around the lowest roads and bridges so as not to get stuck in mud or stranded.

The storms and rain also bring with them the danger of slick roads, downed power lines, wind tossed debris and trees fallen over roads. 
But what is the source of the rain? Normal storms? A hurricane? Will the storm spawn lightning or perhaps tornadoes?

I was reading a book I'd checked from the library, trying to get my mind off of it for a few minutes before diving back into worldbuilding. Something in that story reminded me of a flood incident that happened in my home town several years ago.

My husband and I had move about a hundred miles away, but most of my family still lived in that area so when the shit hit the fan my Mom called to give me the juicy details. The town is nearly surrounded by two different meandering rivers. To get out of town you have to either cross major bridges or drive through very low lying areas.
During the rainy season the lowest bridges and roads are flooded out and impassable. Locals are accustomed to this and adjust their driving habits accordingly. No big deal right?
Until the worst flood in recent memory happens. Then what do they do? Everyone is trapped. Even the highest bridges are covered or so close to the water that they're completely unsafe. Some people are flooded out and have to take shelter with friends or family. Everyone helps a neighbor and shares what little they have until the crisis is over. 
Over the phone my Mom tells me of having to camp out in the house with no electricity, of going to the grocery and finding only empty shelves. I get all the details of having to meet hundreds of other people in the park to pick up government rations that had been flown in by helicopter.
I get the play by play of an elderly neighbor of my Grandparents who refuses to leave her home without her precious family heirlooms. Which happens to all be large furniture. I hear the story of how my relatives rowed to her house in the biggest boats they could find, just so they could load up as many of her favored belongings as possible. 

And now I've got the landscape and weather crisis for my story. 
How do I trap my characters?
In a town surrounded by rising flood waters.
How do I limit their survival supplies?
By having a sudden weather disaster in which everyone and their uncle have raided the stores for supplies.

Now they can't drive out, swim out or row out. They have no choice but to stand and fight.
All this based on a real world event that, while it didn't happen to me directly, was a catalyst in what could have been an even greater disaster that did affect me. 

When building a world you have to stop and think about the physical landscape and the weather and how each affects the other as well as how it impacts the lives of your characters.
Can you use it to build tension?
Can it be used to reflect the emotions of a character?
Is it an obstacle that has to be conquered?
Does it create a ticking clock in the form of a damn breaking, a tornado or fire approaching?

There are many ways to use landscape and weather in your story, so use them to your advantage. 

I'm going back to my story and add a few more zombies. Floating in a flooded river that surrounds the town. Maybe some zombie fish? 


  1. That's good! Not only can I envision the scene, I can feel the panic people likely felt down to their very souls. ~ Maeke

  2. What a great situation to draw on for your fiction. It's really helpful to use real-life events like that - not only do you have emotional empathy for the situation, but I think readers resonate to it as well. Thanks for sharing your approach to that world-design problem!