This is a fairly short one, since I’m concentrating more on world-building advice than technical knowledge.
1) Use seasonal details to world-build.
It’s odd how little seasons show up in the details of a fantasy author’s world, other than the few stand-bys:
- Autumn: some mention of colored leaves and, quite often, woodsmoke.
- Winter: snow, of course, and frostbite that people seem to pick up when they should be dying. And perhaps a “blizzard” that consists of some snow blowing harder than normal (I was born in Michigan, so I must say: AHAHAHAHAHA).
- Spring: budding leaves, birds singing.
- Summer: heat.
Seasons are so much more than this, and they can be used to individuate your world. It’s especially valuable if your book isn’t going on a journey, but remaining within a relatively small square of land, perhaps a farm or a village or the hills around a city. Get more details in there than just the budding leaves and the birds singing. What happens in this neck of the woods, as opposed to a random neck of Generica?
There can always be unique additions to the season, like trees that sing on the first day of autumn, or birds that always arrive at precisely the same time every year (actually, with the swallows of Capistrano in our own world, that’s not very far-fetched), or fruit that slowly ripens all summer long and doesn’t taste good much before the equinox. But that’s only the most limited facet of it. The really valuable thing about seasons for a fantasy writer is that they allow full use of all the senses to immerse the reader in this imagined world, and you don’t have to create fruit or birds or trees for that. Apples, geese, and pines will do just as well. But make the audience see them, feel them, touch and taste and hear them.
A bird is singing. What kind of bird is it? If you have a character who’s grown up in the area and knows its nature very well, he should recognize the tune. (I always roll my eyes when a character who’s supposedly an accomplished woodsman or ranger sees “trees” and “birds” instead of individual species). If the bird falls silent, what kind of predator is stalking through the woods? It might be a bear, but it might also be too early for a bear; perhaps it’s a snow tiger wandered down from the hills in the last cold snap. The ground underfoot is treacherous from the mud, and mudslides are a greater danger in this area than snow tigers. The characters can hardly see where they’re going because of the mist, which presses clammily against them. Their hounds are likewise having trouble scenting because of the mist and the water. So here come your heroes wobbling on treacherous ground, their visibility limited, their clothing soaked, with a possible snow tiger prowling around them, and I assure you they’re far more real than yet another random party walking along beneath budding leaves and singing birds.
2) Use seasons as consequences and limitations to shape your plot.
I suggested this with the mudslides and the mist, and there are a few examples that most authors are aware of; very few have their armies marching in the snow. But you can set a party walking in the transition from spring to summer, which might be the perfect temperature and travel time for your created world, and still give them plenty of problems.
To start with, food. The party decides that they’re going to hunt and gather, because they would be too noticeable if they went into villages and bought food at inns or markets. This plan works fine until they reach the edge of the territory that they know and set out into other lands. Hee. There may be plenty of plants, but how do they know which ones are poisonous, which ones are fine, and which ones will make them throw up and give them hallucinations for a few hours? The edge of spring/beginning of summer will hardly differentiate in what it grows. Hunting’s hit-and-miss, with many real-life hunters (including predatory animals) faring wore than the typical fantasy archer. Perhaps the big animals which are available in winter have withdrawn to the hills to hunt or graze, the birds are busy raising families and aren’t singing as much to let the party know they’re there, and a lot of readily available small animals and fish are not very filling. A wolf can live on a steady diet of mice in the spring/summer. A human probably won’t be able to.
Next, shelter. There isn’t snow to pile. If they’re passing through wide, grassy fields and woods, there aren’t going to be convenient large stones, either. They might need to drag brush and branches together the day that the Dark Lord’s giant hounds corner them. Say the Dark Lord sent giant rats instead the next night. (If I were a Dark Lord and had the power to see what my enemies were doing and how they’d defeated my giant hounds, that’s what I’d do). Bye-bye, shelter of branches.
Next, rivers. They won’t be frozen, which is good news as far as drinking water goes and bad, bad news for crossing them. If your party is traveling closer to the beginning of spring, they might well be swollen with snowmelt, and not every part of the river will have a convenient bridge; that’s especially true if they can’t travel the roads because the Dark Lord might find them. White-water rapids are no fun to cross. All it needs is a little wave sending someone sideways, and he can trip over a rock and break his leg—or his skull. Nearer summer, the river will probably be calmer, perhaps calm enough to wade across, but a riverbed is not smooth. Holes, rocks, fish, little crabs, are just waiting to sprain ankles, stub toes, brush against someone and startle them into hopping into the current, and cause wounds. And if your characters can’t swim and the river is as high as their waists or higher, I sincerely hope that a swimmer can string a rope across, onto which they can hold while they wade.
A tiny sampling, but, as you can see, travel even in spring and summer is rarely a matter of strolling anywhere you like, plucking the berries from the bushes and stepping across rivers in a few moments and finding a convenient abandoned ruin for shelter anywhere you turn.
At least, if you’re in a temperate climate.
3) Try not assuming a temperate climate, and see what happens.
What often happens is more violent transitions. A rainfall in a desert during the spring will probably be a rare event and not last very long, but while it lasts, flowers bloom madly, animals reproduce like mad (such as frogs taking advantage of the temporary puddles), and…
Water comes hurtling down the arroyos in flash floods and swallows foolish campers alive. There’s a nasty surprise for desert travelers who’ve thought to guard against lack of water but not water itself.
A jungle might have more abundant food for travelers, assuming they’re used to that terrain, but the seasons still won’t make travel easy. During the dry season, water becomes a precious commodity, plants will start drooping and wilting and won’t taste as good or offer as much shade, and the heat will take its toll on the morale and strength of anyone walking. As much as they need to escape the Dark Lord’s soldiers, your heroes will still need to pause and try to find shelter during noon or whenever the hottest part of the day is. Running afoul of the Dark Lord’s soldiers isn’t good, but neither is collapsing with heat exhaustion. If they’re really unlucky, and traveling through a really dry stretch of jungle, then lightning might strike and start a forest fire, which is going to travel really fucking fast.
When the rains come, they may be monsoons; they may not. They often will flood rivers, start floods if a natural dam breaks, make the ground slushy and marshy underfoot, call forth animals from hiding that include, say, venomous snakes and constrictors, wet wood so it’ll be hard to burn (as well as put fires out), promote the spread of diseases like cholera, make shelters hard to find and uncomfortable when they are found, weigh down clothes and packs, ruin important documents, and aggravate wounds by causing bandages to rot away more quickly than normal and once-broken bones to ache. There are all sorts of neat sadistic things that you can do to your characters.
In an arctic climate, your characters may be far north or south enough to clap down darkness for half the year, but without that, travel in the cold is still no picnic. A ship that sails among ice floes is probably not going to get out again; aside from the ice gripping it, it can shift and smash the ship in half. Cold will eat at exposed skin, consume digits and noses and ears, make people much more prone to become sick, freeze valuable drinking water (and drinking melted snow is really no substitute), kill anyone sleeping too far from a fire, and kill the animals, like horses and dogs, that the heroes might be depending on to move them. And then there’s the snow.
When the winter lessens and the summer comes, things will be warmer, but only just. Animals reproduce, but, once again, it’s tiny animals like lemmings and mice that are most plentiful. And a lot of the really rich and valuable food will be grazing where the heroes can’t reach it, or swimming where they can’t reach it. And with the big predators on the move, they’re more likely to attract unfriendly animal attention, even if it’s just by accidentally encountering a polar bear in a bad mood.
Sick of the endless round of spring, summer, autumn, and winter? Here are some challenges to liven that up.
4) Avoid the pathetic fallacy as much as possible.
Here’s another thing that might not irritate most people, but it irritates the hell out of me. My rant, so it gets ranted about, even if its entry is small and goes at the end.
The pathetic fallacy is attributing human emotions to nature or inanimate objects. Where it shows up in bad writing is when the author uses nature, weather, or seasons to reflect the emotions of the characters. So the heroine starts crying as she watches her village burning down, and here comes the rain to drown the fire and “cry with her.” The hero is making the decision to kill the Dark Lord, and he walks beside “an angry sea, tossing its waves onto the shore just as Harold tossed away his inhibitions.” The day of a duel dawns gray and murky, not because the author wants mud for the hero and opponent to slop and slip in—that’s a good reason to make the weather that way—but because “the whole world is mourning” the fact that the opponent stupidly challenged the hero to a duel when the hero has to be out doing something else. The very worst authors will make the clouds break just as the hero kills his poor stupid opponent and send down a beam of sunlight to sparkle on his sword.
Can we stop this, please? You really don’t need it. At the best, these are usually purple and obvious contrivances to writing that’s subtle and doesn’t need to make its point that loudly. At their worst, the author will completely ignore the established conditions to create her pathetic fallacy weather, such as having the storm come and put out the burning village when she’s already said that that area is dry and hot in summer and never gets storms.
There can be reasons to have the weather and the season follow what you want them to be. I’ve discussed a lot of them in the first three points. This isn’t a good reason.
There will be a poll in a few hours’ time, as that marks the end of this section of rants.