You can’t learn everything from your backyard.
Despite what many of us were taught in our high school English classes, Henry David Thoreau’s advice on the matters of travel and soul searching isn’t the greatest for writers and world building. We can search our souls without leaving our hometown, but we can’t experience different environments without getting out there. This is extremely important when building a world of your own.
Growing up, I lived with my mother in Camas, Washington. It’s a little mill town in the conservative pocket of Clark County. Just across the river is the thriving cultural hub that is Portland, Oregon. Now, I live in Texas, near Dallas. It’s just about as different as you can get without going to the other side of the globe. As a teenager, I spent quite a few summers here with my father, but living here has taught me to see some things I hadn’t considered before.
Two very different sunsets.
Friends from back North often ask me what it’s like to live in a red state since I lived in a blue state for so long. The differences, though, aren’t really political. Sure, that’s part of it, but the culture itself is what shows the most. It comes up in some of the strangest ways.
“Thanks for warning me…that would have gotten on my nerves eventually.”
Language is something that constantly evolves. It is influenced by the culture of the people who speak it. World building sometimes means coming up with a unique language to suit the people inhabiting the new universe. If it doesn’t, it probably involves different usage of certain words. This became evident to me when I found out my stepmom had warned my grandma about the way I talk before we met.
My step-grandmother thanked my stepmom, Amy, for the warning she received before meeting me. “She doesn’t say ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am,’ Mom. It’s a cultural thing. It’s as different as if she came here and started speaking Spanish,” Amy said.
At the time, Grandma brushed it off with an “okay,” and life moved on. When we met, we got along instantly. We bonded over our love of dogs and talked endlessly about Mississippi, her home state, and the Pacific Northwest. But Amy was right. I never once said “Yes, Ma’am,” to her. My vocabulary was different. I was quiet and polite, but not in the typical Southern way.
That’s why she thanked Amy. Grandma grew up with honorifics being mandatory, and she raised her kids to know when to use them. It’s a sign of respect, and not using them can be disrespectful. In the North, however, it’s seldom used outside of the service industry.
When building your worlds, consider the differences of language. Would it cause any strife between characters? Would it be something a character would have to learn? What speaking habits would some of them have that others don’t?
“It doesn’t matter if we like you here. If we aren’t hospitable, the desert might take you.”
We have a family friend, Camille, who has a habit of being very straight forward, very blunt, in a way I’ve not seen from anyone else. When I met her for the first time in years, she intimidated the living hell out of me. Reading people is not my strong suit. I have had to actively teach myself how to read body language and I’m still working on learning tone. Camille is bold and loud. She has a passion for lifting and Pekiti–Tirsia Kali. In many ways, she’s my exact opposite.
I spent a lot of my time when she was around quiet, and it didn’t take long for her to realize I was nervous. She took me out to a Thai restaurant she really liked and we talked the whole time. We discovered a shared interest in music, both of us being clarinet players, and she offered to teach me the basics of Pekiti.
I told her when we got back to the car I’d been afraid she wouldn’t like me much. We’d seemed to be so different. She offered me a shrug and said, “It doesn’t matter if we like you here. If we aren’t hospitable, the desert might take you.”
I stared at her for a moment, stunned. The desert wasn’t a person. It didn’t have that much power. But she explained her statement to me, and I realized yes, yes it does.
The desert is hot, formidable, and merciless. Without water, people die. This fact alone shaped the whole concept of Southern Hospitality. When westward expansion was happening, survival depended on being able to put aside differences and help each other. The culture reflects that. Politics don’t matter. Religion doesn’t matter. Race doesn’t matter. Sexuality doesn’t matter. In the desert, without water, you will die. Francis Duggan was right. Death is the great equalizer.
In your world building, consider what parts of the environment would impact the culture of the inhabitants. Are people able to be generous and band together, or are resources so slim, it’s better to be solitary? Is it easy to survive alone? How does the land affect the individual, the family, the community?
“Oh, please. That was tame.”
My fiance is scared of storms.
He lives in Tornado Alley.
When we moved to Texas, he told me over and over one of the things he’d have to work the hardest on getting used to were the thunder storms, the hail, and, God forbid, tornadoes. I tried my best to be reassuring, offering a smile and reassurance that it wouldn’t be the end of the world.
Earlier today he experienced his first tornado watch. Then warning. Then sirens. My dad made a point during the daylight to show us both the clouds and where to look for the formation that would eventually become a tornado. My stepmom drew attention to the sudden drop in air temperature as the cold and warm systems moved about. I pointed out the frequent change in the wind direction. We all wanted to teach him not to be so afraid.
The lightening was like a light show. The sky flashed yellow, then purple, then brilliant grey-blue. But still, it seemed tame. That is, until night fell. It sounded like our house was on the edge of the ocean. The wind blasted and the sky never stayed dark. It was almost daylight without the sun.
Hail dumped down. We huddled under the overhang by the front door, watching in quiet awe. Alex murmured to me then, “Nature can really eff some shit up.” No truer words have been spoken.
We retreated inside when the ice shards started skittering across the concrete. Amy and I drew the last of the curtains as the sirens sounded. Dad retrieved a few pieces of hail that had somehow stayed intact.
The wind started to die down. The hail quit falling. The sirens went quiet.
I looked over at Alex, who was still wide-eyed with the kind of feverish excitement that only comes from finding a new thrill. In the North, we don’t get warnings for storms. The hills and trees hide it. They come suddenly and end just as fast.”See why I told you Northern storms are tame?” I asked. “They’re a lot louder here. Much more violent, too,” I added.
“Oh, please,” Amy said. “That was tame.”
Think about how the environment affects characters’ fears. What is different? What is the same? Thunder storms in the south are more intense, but less frightening to Alex. Storms are also a stereotype of this area, but people are more comfortable with them here. Are there quirks like that in your world? Why?
Texas and Washington are completely different worlds. I am enjoying every minute of learning my new home. Every difference I notice brings me something else to think about when I write.
So go out! Travel! Talk to new people, debate, spark conversation. Find differences and revel in them. The world is richer for being diverse. Even if right now your world is confined to your own Walden Pond, there are people out there who are different than you. Dive into their wealth of information. Think.
Not only is that the route to being a better writer, it’s the route to being a better human.
Did you like this post? Do you want to read more? Consider stopping by Amazon and picking up a copy of Nightfall, the first book of the Starwalkers Series by Christy Harkins.