History · Writing

Geography, History, and Fictional Worlds

My friend Rose B. Fischer recently posted about how to use history to fix a stuck writing project. Today I’m going to jump off her reference to geography, and give some examples of how important geography is for understanding history and for creating a fictional world. The topics are remarkably similar.

Ancient Egypt

This is my first example because it’s one of my favorite topics, and its geography is relatively familiar to most people. Essentially, the Nile flows up from the center of Africa, irrigating a strip of desert to the Mediterranean.

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This is a picture of Egypt from space. You can clearly see where the Nile flows and how green its banks are, compared to the desert all around.

The Nile was, very literally, the source of life. Every year it flooded its banks and deposited black silt that fertilized the fields. For the most part, this gave Egypt plenty of food on a very reliable schedule, creating a kind of existential security and allowing them to focus on other things. They had a large, organized army. They had a stable bureaucracy to administer land laws. They had a currency system based on standardized grain measurements. They had a sophisticated religion, concerned in large part with the afterlife (and, indeed, with the Nile). At the same time, the Nile connected Egypt. You could travel by boat up and down the river in a few weeks, and ship goods to the Meditterranean and beyond. All this helped make Egypt a center of civilization for a long time.

How does this relate to fiction? Well, if you’re writing a fictional world based on Egypt, there had better be a river flowing through a desert. Imagine Egypt without the Nile! There would be no Egypt. You can absolutely write a fictional world based on Egypt and change the geography, but you’ll want to know how the culture is different as a result. It could be subtle, exactly like Egypt but with an extra tributary, or it could be more obvious. You could have three enormous lakes instead of one river. You could have vast plains of ice serving the same function as the desert and keeping your new Egyptians isolated from the rest of the world. Maybe the Nile happens to be necessary for agriculture, but is toxic for humans to touch, or maybe the “river” that gives life is a cosmic event giving off radiation for your aliens. Maybe your culture of spacefaring pirate cabbage people looks nothing like Ancient Egypt’s, but if they’re living on the banks of a river in the desert, they’ll need to solve some of the same problems. That will create echoes back to Egypt. Maybe you already have a culture that’s similar to Ancient Egypt’s, with a few changes, and you need a way to explain the differences. Tweaks in geography are a great way to do that. Take the opportunity to do some research and be inspired!

Tannehill Ironworks

Birmingham, Alabama, is nicknamed “The Magic City” because an industrial boom fueled such quick growth in the late 1800s/early 1900s. Iron and steel were a big deal, and there are a number of industry-related historical sites in Alabama.

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The Vulcan statue, the biggest cast-iron statue in the world. I just thought you’d like to know they sell plastic bobble-butt figurines in the gift shop. They’re like bobbleheads, only, you know.

The Tannehill site was one of the largest, especially during the Civil War, and is also the one with which I have the most experience. In short, Tannehill had a perfect convergence of natural resources. There was iron ore. There was plenty of timber for structures and to fuel the iron furnaces, plus coal to be turned into coke to fuel the furnace. There was limestone to use in the chemical mixture. There was a long growing season, the original reason settlers came to Alabama before they discovered the iron. There was local water, always a necessity. Tannehill produced cast iron skillets and other items, but industry really took off during the Civil War when they produced iron for cannons, cannonballs, and other armaments. The Magic City phase came along after the war.

Let’s do some more counterfactuals. What if there wasn’t any iron ore anywhere in Alabama, for any of the ironworks sites? That would mean no Civil War armaments. Confederate industry and infrastructure were already weaker than the Union’s by a wide margin. The Civil War would’ve been over pretty quick. Even after that, with no iron, there would’ve been no Magic City and no industrial center. Birmingham is one of only two big cities in Alabama, and the other is a port city. Just writing this, I’m getting all kinds of ideas for an alternate-history post-Civil War story, not to mention southern vampire iron moguls in 1879.

Speaking more generally, if you’re writing about a city, where did that city come from? Why was it founded where it was? If it’s a real city, you can research that easily. This can be especially helpful if you’re writing about a city where you don’t personally live. It’ll tell you what kind of buildings are common, where people might work, or where their parents might work. Is there nostalgia for the good old days of industry? Has the city been booming for two hundred years? Where is this city in relation to cultural or political centers?

This is also important if you’re writing any kind of large-scale fantasy or sci-fi story. Where are resources coming from? What do your countries trade with each other? This may just create background depth for a more personal story, or it can be the vital ingredient to make readers feel like they’ve been somewhere. Some of the strongest examples I can think of are dystopian futures, like the familiar but harsh landscape of the Sweet Tooth comics. The Hunger Games combines geography with industry and creates the memorable district system, with each district defined by its industry.

What are your favorite examples of fictional geography? What makes them interesting?

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