Last month I went on a writing retreat in Iceland. (Yes, Iceland! In fact, you can learn more about the annual Iceland Writers Retreat here.) It sounds like a remote location for a writing event; and when I first told people I was going, some said, “Um… why Iceland? Why not someplace closer to home?”
My answer? Well, I had many reasons for going, but the most resonant one was:
The northern latitudes of my story’s fictional world were inspired by Iceland’s geography and climate.
Granted that before the Iceland Writers Retreat, I had never set foot on that subarctic, geologically active European island. However, I had fallen in love with it after watching the Iceland episode of Art Wolfe’s “Travels to the Edge” on PBS. Since then, I’d been studying photographs and researching whatever I could on Iceland’s weather, natural landmarks, and so on.
Thanks to the retreat, I had the opportunity to visit Iceland for the first time. And in addition to attending writing workshops, I was able to take a countryside tour that put me right there, on the ground of my story world, hearing and smelling and seeing an environment much like where I imagined my characters living.
Regardless of the genre we write – be it contemporary, historical, or speculative fiction – chances are our story’s setting might be a real place or a fictional world inspired by a real location. And in order for us to recreate that setting in a story, we should consider the “how” and “why” of its existence and understand how it influences other aspects of the story.
Understand How a Setting Functions Above and Underground
One of my favorite bits of worldbuilding advice comes from fantasy author N.K. Jemisin: “Build your world from the ground up – literally.” This can also apply to settings for stories in other genres. By learning how a real-world location “functions” above and underground, as well as why it functions in this manner, we can ensure that our story’s depiction of that setting is not only realistic, but also factually accurate.
How can we do this? By doing our homework, of course! Whether visiting the actual place or (if travel isn’t an option) researching by reading and interviewing trustworthy sources, we should have a list of questions that will give us a firm grasp on the location’s geography and climate. Here are some suggestions:
- What are the setting’s latitude and longitude in the story’s world? What types of weather or seasonal changes does the setting experience as a result?
- What types of terrain (mountains, tundra, forests, etc.) comprise this setting? What makes their existence possible (tectonic plates, latitudes, soil conditions, etc.)?
- What are some of the setting’s natural landmarks? How did the area’s geology, climate, etc. form these landmarks?
- Does this setting experience any seismic, geological, or meteorological phenomena? If so, what? Why are these phenomena possible in this location?
- What kinds of wildlife (plants, animals, etc.) are found in this setting?
- Iceland sits on two tectonic plates (Eurasian and North American) that are slowly drifting apart, thus causing the island’s earthquakes, volcanoes, and geysers.
- Despite its latitude just south of the Arctic Circle, Iceland has a relatively temperate climate because it lies in the path of the North Atlantic Current, which directs warm water northward from the Gulf Stream. This leads to cool summers (10 to 20 deg Celcius, or 50 to 68 deg Fahrenheit) and mild winters (-1 to 5 deg Celcius, or 28 to 41 deg Fahrenheit) compared to other countries at the same latitude.
- Iceland’s rich, nearly-black soil is comprised of andisols, which form from the weathering of volcanic materials such as ash and are typically found in areas with cool temperatures and moderate to high rainfall.
What’s worth remembering is that a setting’s climate and geology will determine the geography, biodiversity, and other natural factors. For example, Iceland’s soil is a result of its climate and geological activity. If Iceland had warmer weather and sat in the middle of one tectonic plate instead of on the edge of two, its soil would be different. So would myriad other aspects of its environment. This is why it’s crucial to understand how or why a setting has its distinctive features, and how any changes, additions, or losses can impact that setting as a whole.
How Does Setting Influence Other Aspects of the Story World?
Think of all the social and cultural features that a setting’s many layers can determine: food, clothing, occupations, housing, hobbies or pastimes, even fuel and electricity. And that list is just for starters. So when using a real-world location for our stories (or basing a fictional setting on a real place), pay close attention to how geography or climate affect the people who live and work there. Every detail we include must have a solid reason for existing based on past setting-building decisions we’ve made. It wouldn’t make sense for mountain goats to call a rainforest home, right? 😉
How much does Iceland’s climate and geography influence its culture? Let me share three examples I learned during the retreat:
- Because of its climate and island location, Iceland’s cuisine primarily consists of seafood, lamb, dairy products (yogurt, cheese, etc.), bread, and root vegetables such as potatoes and rutabaga.
- Iceland is one of the world’s leaders in renewable energy. Thanks to its volcanic activity and abundance of water (ocean, rivers, waterfalls), the country generates 100% of its electricity and about 81% of its primary energy needs (heating, transportation, etc.) through geothermal and hydropower sources.
- Most houses in Iceland are made from concrete, due to the island’s lack of native trees. Older buildings were constructed of stone, turf, and (in rare cases) timber.
The Devil’s in the (Sensory) Details
If you’ve read Angela and Becca’s Urban and Rural Setting Thesauri, you’ll know the importance of sensory details in setting descriptions. Sights and sounds are usually the first ones we think of. But what about smells, tastes, or textures? They can enhance the reader’s experience beyond what’s seen and heard, and make the setting seem vividly real.
And when basing a story’s setting on a real-world location – well, what’s better than visiting that area or someplace similar first-hand and experiencing it with our senses? But if we have to rely on research instead, we can still investigate which sensory details are appropriate for that setting. Here are some questions that can help:
- Sights: What kinds of objects, natural features, and colors stand out in this location? What tiny details might some people overlook?
- Sounds: What noises, voices, etc. can characters hear in this location? Are these sounds natural (leaves rustling, waterfall roaring) or manmade (the drone of a vehicle motor)?
- Textures/Sensations: What does the character touch in this setting? How does it feel? How about the ground/floor under his feet or the air indoors or outdoors?
- Smells: What fragrances and odors can the character smell? Are they natural or manmade? Pleasing or off-putting? Fresh or stale? Are any smells food-related?
- Tastes: Does the character eat or drink anything in this setting? If so, how does it taste? Do any strong scents leave an artificial taste in the character’s mouth?
One of the most unique sensory experiences I had during the Iceland Writers Retreat was at Deildartunguhver, Europe’s most powerful hot spring. As I stepped off the bus with the rest of my tour group, I immediately noticed plumes of white steam rising from the spring and a sulfurous (“rotten egg”) smell. The most intriguing details, however, greeted me when I stopped at the spring’s safety gate. There, I found spring-green moss growing on the reddish-brown rock, heard the hiss of steam and hot water, and felt the air grow humid and slightly warmer compared to the Icelandic April chill. Water droplets pelted my clothes as a burst of wind kicked up, and it was impossible to tell if it was raining or if Deildartunguhver was “spitting” at us.
Now, think of how vivid your reading experience would be if those details were included in a scene set at a hot spring. They would make you feel like you were actually there, wouldn’t they?
Are any of your stories set in or inspired by a real-world location? What research have you done (either by traveling or reading/interviewing) to capture that setting as completely as possible? Do you have any other tips or suggestions to add here?
Sara is a fantasy writer living in Massachusetts who devours good books, geeks out about character arcs, and drinks too much tea. In addition to WHW’s Resident Writing Coach Program, she writes the Theme: A Story’s Soul column at DIY MFA and is hard at work on a YA fantasy novel. Find out more about Sara here, visit her personal blog, Goodreads profile, and find her online.
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