Vision: A Resource for Writers
Keep Your Eyes Open
By Valerie Serdy
2002, Valerie Serdy
Ideas for our writing can come from anywhere and everywhere. This is an old writing axiom, rather like "write what you know," and yet sometimes I forget the value it has for me. I grew up reading fantasy novels and internalized various conventions and clichés without realizing it. Only after reading Diana Wynne Jones' A Tough Guide to Fantasyland did I realize that, aside from automobile-like horses and black birds of ill omen, there are rarely any animals in most fantasy novels. It took reading Water: A Natural History by Alice Outwater to show me what to do about it.
My own novel is plagued by a lack of animals: in the scenery, interacting with my characters, providing work for people. I grew up in suburbs and cities so my knowledge of "wild" animals was limited to dogs, cats, and the occasional roadkill. As I've moved progressively further from cities, I've noticed more animals and birds in nature and slowly those creatures have made their way into my writing. But an animal's appearance is still as rare in my writing as when I see it in my yard. Construction, hunting, pets, and people noises have led to wariness in all but the most gregarious animals.
As a writer, I stick to the old standby: write what you know. Judging by the lack of animals in other fantasy novels, I suspect other writers are doing the same thing. But it doesn't always make sense to use our modern urban experiences with animals for our fantasy novels, especially considering most fantasy novels are based on some type of pre-industrial (or emerging industrial) medieval society.
This point hit home after I read Water, in which Alice Outwater discusses the history of America's waterways starting with Medieval Europe's demand for furs. While at first this history book seemed like an unlikely source for fantasy world building, the more I thought about it, the more it made sense.
Today, there are over 280 million people in the United States, making it the third most populous country, after China and India. Our cities are close together, sprawling with suburbs that surround a city's center for miles. The landscape is covered with roads, utility lines, railroads. We have dug new channels for rivers and filled in wetlands. Until the 1970's, companies dumped their waste byproducts into any convenient river or up out of their smokestacks. All of this has caused animal habitats to disappear,(in replaced by houses, farms, progress. And with their habitats, the animals themselves are disappearing: 5200 animal species worldwide are threatened with extinction.
Medieval cities, on the other hand, were few and far apart. Many were not all that populous. During the Black Death, it is estimated that Paris, the most populous city north of the Alps, had a population of 180,000 people; today it has more than two million. People simply weren't numerous enough or technologically advanced enough to damage animal habitat and thereby reduce animal populations and change animal behavior as effectively and quickly as we have today.
When European fur trading hit its peak during the 1300s, prized animals were so numerous that 380,000 animals could be caught, skinned, and delivered in two months. And while particular species may have declined, this total number remained relatively stable for a number of decades. Our experiences today simply don't allow us to fathom how numerous fur-bearing animals must have been to sustain the level of predation for that long.
While we may not want to use our experiences today to define our fantasy worlds, we can use various books like Water to help us out. Water describes how prevalent animals such as beaver, buffalo, and prairie dogs were in North America before European colonization and westward expansion. Outwater also points out that naturalists' journals, such as those of Lewis and Clark, describe which animals were common in different habitats before human predation. Some journals also show common animal behaviors that may not be apparent at the zoo or available from a quick field guide.
This information comes in handy if my characters spend any time traveling cross-country. The lands they pass through will be richer and more realistic in landscape and scenery with the addition of herds of grazing animals and the chitter of an angry squirrel. The information becomes even more useful if I've made fur a large industry in my world as it was for many medieval societies.
Water pointed out how the cold climate of northern Europe and poor architecture combined to create a thriving trade in furs to keep people warm. If my characters also live in a cold environment, they will do whatever it takes to stay warm: build better homes, make warmer clothes. If my characters don't have open fields to graze sheep for wool, fur becomes a realistic alternative. If certain animals are hard to trap because of wiliness or rarity, they will be more expensive, influencing fashion. Everyone simply must have a beaver skin hat. And if certain animals become unavailable due to excessive hunting, as Outwater shows, my people will begin to expand and colonize other areas to meet their needs, which creates instant conflict as my people clash with other peoples.
Reading Fantasyland, a book that ruthlessly pokes fun of the fantasy genre, allowed me to recognize a cliché that had slipped into my own writing. Once my eyes were opened to this flaw, I was able to pull advice and ideas from other books, such as Water, to help correct the problem. Ideas do indeed come from the strangest sources.