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Jun 13 2011

Geologic Paen and Plea

I’m discovering I can’t write about a place without knowing its geology.

It wasn’t always this way.  I’d just make up landscapes willy-nilly, choosing stuff that fit with vague imaginings of a location and we were off.  I mean, it’s a fantasy landscape and I can do what I like with it, right?  Only then, I got sick of so many fantasy worlds that were not much more than a blob of land with an ocean stuck on.  I mean, no offense to Robert Jordan and dear Professor Tolkien (maytheyrestinpeace), but seriously, is this it?

Robert Jordan’s world
Middle-Earth

Open up most fantasy books, and if there’s a map at all, this is typically what you get: a blotch of land with some mountains and rivers stuck in.  Or, if you rotate it a bit, you might see the trace of a familiar coastline, as somebody’s turned the map of Europe upside-down and copied it. 

And, at first, that was my methodology: draw an irregular splotch of land, color all the open bits blue, and call it good.  No rhyme or reason.  No history.  No geology.

Mr. Bennett changed all that, with his physical geography and his plate tectonics and all that.  It became clear to me that landscapes shouldn’t just do what I wanted them to: there were things to take into account, like rainshadows and latitude and so forth.  So I broke up ye olde big blotch of land and spent an instructive few evenings sailing the bits around a blank oval, seeing what crashed into which and what bits pulled away and ending up with something that resembled a world where the continents behaved like continents dragged around by plates.  Where they collided, in (up?) went mountains.  I even did up a map of the ocean currents.  And while it was just a crude approximation, at least I’d tried.

But that was just the large-scale stuff, the shape of things.  I hadn’t got down to the rocks.  And for Athesea, for the most part, I still haven’t, not yet.  But when I started working on Xtalea in earnest, because I wanted that world to live in all its particulars, I started really thinking geology.  Which is why I started studying geology.  And, incidentally, how I met most of you lot.  Without Xtalea, there would have been no geological explorations and long missives thereupon and hence no adoption by the geoblogosphere.  But I digress.

I’m finding out I can’t really write about a region of Xtalea without knowing the rocks.  I can’t just start a scene in a new place.  No matter how interesting the people involved are, no matter how fascinating the events, unless I have its geology at least outlined in my mind, I can’t get a good start.  I have to know, because the character of a place is so intimately tied to its geology.  I know that now, feel it in my bones.  If I don’t know at least one hundred million years of its history, I might as well be writing about a featureless void.

Right now, I’m about to send my characters over to Nyaanovos, the town in the Southlands where Jiiren Naaltoba was born.  I’ve got an image in my mind: a very narrow inlet, steep cliffs, the waves booming as they pound themselves into this deep gash in the coastline.  Just down the way, there’s a lovely bay.  It’s on one of the mainlands.  And it is very, very old, a place where the ancient bones of the earth emerge.  I get a metamorphic sense, with perhaps some uncomformities and some youngish horizontal sedimentary layers capping the lot in places.  It seems to me a place like mainland Greece, and as I was casting about the intertoobz in search of a suitable bit to serve as a model, I came across Cape Sounion by way of a sea cave.  That at least put me in a general region, and I now have about a gajillion PDFs open on various aspects of Greek geology around Attica. 

Already, just from a few skimmings as I try to fill my abyssal ignorance with some good, solid facts, I begin to get a feel for this place.  There’s a bay – obviously, we shall have a bit of a seafood industry, and fishers sailing past cliffs of very old stone.  It’s the Southlands, and I know a bit of Naaltoba’s family history, so I know there are military people about, but this wasn’t a military town.  So what else did people do?  Think of the geology, and that gives me careers: there will be quarries about, with a healthy trade in cut stone.  Silver mines?  Possibly.  Perhaps even probably.  All of this carefully done, because while resources are important things to have, so is a livable world, and I know Xtaleans take exquisite care of the place, so even in the mining districts we aren’t facing great gaping wounds and polluted streams.  The soils here probably aren’t thick, but a bit of farming goes on, and there are hardy trees clinging to the cliffs.  Is there any forestry?  Not so likely.  But there’s a thriving trade in various plants, and perhaps a vineyard or two back in the hills. 

Think of the geology.  This is a fractious region, a crazy-quilt of jumbled tectonic plates, and coastlines raised or dropped by earthquakes.  The citizens here face a good hard shaking on a semi-regular basis and have planned accordingly.  They face the chaos with equanimity.  And they know the value of building things in such a way that they don’t fall down so easily. 

I think at one point folks on the cape could get a good view of a volcano erupting, way off in the distance.  No volcanoes just here, though, I don’t think.  I don’t get a volcano feel from here, just a seismic feel.  And an old-land feel.  This is where the world stretches its old bones in the sun, groans and sighs and settles back for a good long lounge.  This is the feel I get from this place, and so I’ll be searching for geology that reflects that, and for the mechanisms that led to it.  The world, you see, must make sense.  The world itself is a character, and just like with carbon-based characters, history matters.  Knowing what a person has been tells you a lot about what they are now and might be in the future.  Same goes for a world.  And if there’s something out of character, it must be known and understood and remarked.

This, I probably don’t have to tell you, is a lot harder than bunging a blob on a map and calling it a day.  But I think it makes for a better, richer tale.  It connects people to their world in ways that wouldn’t be possible
otherwise.  And it shows me aspects of the world that would have gone unrevealed if I hadn’t taken the time to seek them out.  Just consider what happened in the Siaan: I got to thinking about karst landscapes, which led to cave complexes, which led to a major plot development which I shall tell you all about in due time.  That plot development never could have arisen had I not known that we were in a karst landscape where networks of caves could be found.  Who knows what may come of knowing the geology of Nyaanovos, and the province it’s in?  If nothing else, it will allow me to evoke it, whole and complete and shining against a wine-dark sea.  It will provide a better backdrop than a mere generic rocky cliff near a bay.

So here’s what happens next, before any words can be exchanged between characters: I’ll read up on the geology of Attica.  I’ll search the intertoobz for pictures of the Aegean coast, until I have a file full of visual references.  I’ll study up on the local rock types, until I understand them better.  And then I’ll use mere fragments of all that work, because the scene I’m writing now isn’t about the geology of that region.  It’s about a grand old man at the end of his life, listening to the waves thunder and boom in a very narrow inlet, and three people who very much want to meet him.  It’s about the philosophy of war, and how there can be no philosophy in war, and perhaps a little about transformational sacrifices.  It’s about getting an autograph and revealing a secret.  And it’s about going home, long after the people who raised you and the people you grew up with and the town you spent the first decades of your life in are dead or gone or changed nearly beyond recognition, except for some of these old bones of the earth, which haven’t yet succumbed to wave and wind and quake.  It’s about place and purpose and finding peace, settling accounts with the past where you can and letting them go where you can’t.

Would most of this have been possible without the geology?  Yes, but it wouldn’t have felt as grounded.  The world wouldn’t have felt so real.  There’s something very real about a rock, especially one that makes sense in its context.  The geology of a place informs its character.  Nyaanovos wouldn’t be the same place without its geologic history.  Neither would the people who emerged from it, and came to it.

I said in the title to this post that there was not merely a paen, but a plea.  And the plea is this: if you know of any resources on Mediterranean geology, I could use them.  Blogs, websites, geologic maps – whatever you know of.  If you can, and if you have the time, drop me a comment.  Help me build a better world.

3 comments

  1. 1
    Anonymous

    Oh yeah, I feel it too! Their legends, like our legends, are populated by giant mythical beasts, generated by the fossils they recognized for bone, however distant. The geology is consistent, as this took place in old Turkey. Stone cutters had marble, builders limestone and the artists amber.The soils you describe, while thin, would grow trees in the sea air. Citrus and olive, or something similar found only in fantasy novels. The geology would allow for distant pegmatites, jewels for trade. And hot springs, every world needs hot springs. The plates are crashing, how deep is the water off shore? Is there a subduction trench? you can get some good sea life going. Sorry, lunch break over, thanks for the geodaydream….

  2. 2
    Dan McShane

    I have made several attempts to figure out the mountains of Middle Earth, but so far have not come up with a coherent plate tectonic consistent explanation.

  3. 3
    Chris Rhetts

    Dana, if you are the least bit handy with graphic arts, I recommend you go out and buy a poster sized binder of drawing paper, a decent set of fine marker pens, and a set of markers with wedge shaped nibs, capable of rendering elementary caligraphy.Then, start building yourself a map of Xtalea. Sketch it out in pencil first, then add place names and geographic details.A map is an amazingly useful tool to focus your thoughts and augment your imagination. I honestly believe a great deal of the narrative in The Rings trilogy originates from Tolkien's early creation of maps of Middle Earth, and his use of them to stimulate his imagination.

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