Default World-Building

My brother, Graydon, attended college in Tucson, Arizona.  My dad went to visit him one time, and was fascinated by how lizards were everywhere, much as squirrels were in D.C.  Dad did a great “lizard on a wall” imitation, popping his eyes and rhythmically puffing out his cheeks.  This would make my brother (who had become jaded regarding lizards, orange trees, cacti, and the other exotic elements of his environment) cringe and roll his eyes.

Treasured Visitors

My brother was still living “out west” when I finished graduate school and moved to Lynchburg, a small town in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.  One time, when he was visiting me, our route took us over one of the myriad creeks that sliced through the town’s seven major and many minor hills.

“What’s that called?” Gray asked.

“I don’t think it has a name,” I said, “except that it’s part of the Blackwater Creek system.”

“Where I live,” he said, “that would have a name.  At every bridge, there would be a large sign announcing the name.  And, much of the year, the creek or river or whatever they called it probably wouldn’t have any water in it.”

It’s all in what you’re used to, right?

I was thinking about that this past week as June in Albuquerque, New Mexico, did its usual thing.  Temperatures shot up over 100 degrees every day.  A couple of times we were treated to a 50-degree temperature shift: 50 to 100 on day; 55 to 106 another.  (Yes, I know the latter is actually a 51-degree shift.)  Albuquerque is a mile high, which means we tend toward lower nighttime temperatures.  You bake during the day and pull up the blankets at night.

This morning, as I was walking into my office, I heard quail peeping out front.  A male and female Gambel quail were chatting as they foraged around the seed block we have in the shade of our ash tree.  A lizard raced across the driveway, off to hunt bugs in the sage.

A typical June…

Other things I’ve grown accustomed to in my twenty-some years living in New Mexico: June is not the gentle lead-in into summer.  June is the brutally hot, horribly dry month.  June is the month during which plants are trying to leaf out and flower before they cook.  June isn’t as windy as March or April, but it can be windy: a hot, desiccating wind that sucks the moisture out of anything, including humans.

June.  This is reality.

Except I’ve noticed that most Fantasy (and some SF) world-building defaults to a typical East Coast to Midwest seasonal pattern.  Spring is pale green unfolding to the music of gentle rains.  Summer temperatures gradually grow warmer, building to the “dog days” of August.  Both seasons are wet, humid, clinging.

Where I live, June is almost always the hottest month.  The plants that survive welcome the monsoon rains that – if we’re lucky – start in mid-July and taper off in August, returning in mid-September.  The indigenous peoples learned to plant in zones that would accommodate these cycles.  They crafted pots that were meant to preserve the moisture in the seeds they saved to plant the next year.

June is our Fire Season, when wildfires take out hundreds, often thousands, of acres.  That’s part of “normal,” too.

Normal includes lizards, quail, long-eared jack rabbits, coyotes, hawks, and vultures.  And, of course, rattlesnakes, tarantulas, and black widow spiders.  Native plants have a lot of stickers.  Or they poison the ground around them so that nothing else can steal their water.  Or both.

Here’s the problem with world-building based on my normal, rather than the normal that “everyone” knows.  You need to explain it.  The other is the default template, reinforced by hundreds, if not thousands of stories that use the same template.  The climate had better be crucial to the story (think Dune) or you’re just slowing down the story.

A pity, I think…

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4 Responses to “Default World-Building”

  1. Louis Robinson Says:

    I’m still trying to figure out who was the idiot who decreed that Midsummer’s Day was the ‘official beginning of summer’. For normal people, summer is over long before the end of September. Some years it seems like it’s over before the end of June, even! Mind you, everybody seems to think they’re the only ones who are normal, so there you go.

    • janelindskold Says:

      I’ve been thinking about this since you posted your comment.

      The best I can figure is that “midsummer” is an older designation, based on European traditional rituals.

      The desire to neatly divide the seasons up according to solstice and equinox dates is unconnected to that, so we have summer officially beginning on the summer solstice, when summer has been underway (as you noted) for quite a while.

      The first day of winter being marked by the winter solstice (Dec 21) is equally illogical by how we experience the seasons, but someone wanted a date that would be somehow logical and yet not rooted in any particular region.

      How does that work for you?

  2. Paul Says:

    This is a good reminder that we need to consider such differences in settings in stories, and not just default to the one where we live.

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