The boundless wild has always called to me. Growing up in, then choosing to live in rural high desert brings primitive territories into focus. With critters ranging from scorpions to rattlers to black bears, I’m reminded that we humans are only one among a vast suite of species—all subject to catastrophic events
Daily serenades by coyotes punctuated by rarer wolf howls add to the sense of being a part of this greatness. That awareness leads me into ongoing studies of biology—literally ‘study of life’. Thus when I write, the natural world takes precedence.
While finishing yet another edit, this one epic fantasy, I noticed again how nature intrinsically evolves through story. Then I strengthen those components through sensory detail beyond the visual. What does granite smell, taste, and feel like? When you crush a jaffafruit, what do you smell, taste, and feel? Confronted with a clowder of mekesh, how do they smell, feel, and look? For me the quality of setting begins with detailed natural elements as filtered through my characters’ emotional responses.
For instance, Elishandra ser Dancheʹ serves as a trained observer in an unfamiliar world. When voids spring up from the rift between, she recognizes their wrongness, then extrapolates what causes them and how this incursion affects natural systems. She takes personal responsibility for the degradation and commits to stopping further invasion. Most other inhabitants simply see ruin where thriving systems once lived. Fear, anger, and confusion drive their responses with nuances specific to each.
Gauging these changes over cyclic time also informs story. For instance, out-of-sync seasons reveal Morchem’s effects in two ways. First otherworldly beings rush through the widening rift. These exotic beings have no natural predators in this world and many find the existing natural systems ill-equipped to meet their needs. They cause havoc. Then Morchem corrupts life energies, exposed by huge shifts between extreme conditions and growing pockets of devastation. Again perceptions and emotional reactions differ according to which person’s point-of-view carries the scene.
Understand that each character’s history colors their view of their surroundings. The warrior Galena ben Inees is more likely to kill a predatory lifeform first, then ask questions later, while the Zinolian Culturist attempts to accommodate lifeforms unless they place her charges at risk. Having retained clarity throughout her studies of various worlds, Lisha tends to analyze before acting. For others, the choice is simply the difference between yum and yuck.
Taking this deeper yet, setting in terms of time and place varies dramatically with each viewpoint. Multiple viewpoints actually strengthen setting, since each imbues the environment with that person’s emotional memory. While Ambassador Anmir reacts with deep shock and mourning at his civilization’s ruin, Galena chooses culturally prescribed defensive strategies first, then progresses to offensive mode when that proves inadequate. Lisha attempts to understand the destructive mechanism even as she searches for a remedy.
To my eyes, the natural world displays a layered richness missing in human contrived settings. What may appear to characters as chaotic often equates with too narrow a view—or lack of knowledge. Besides when it comes to raising the stakes of your story, what works better than placing entire worlds at risk?