Saturday, April 28, 2012

Worldbuiding - Agriculture Basic: Types of Crops

Types of Crops

Not all cultures grow wheat. Wheat is not a requirement for a low-tech culture. Starch, however, is. But there are many ways to get starch. From barley to arro root to rice to corn and on and on. I think the best way to figure out what your culture would be eating is to take a look at our own cultures. But, that's not always a perfect indicator, because there are some plants that just happened to evolve in a specific area and never had the chance to spread. If they'd had the opportunity, they might have become prolific, or they might not have. So, don't just focus on a single area. Focus on a given environment. If conditions are similar in two different areas, but those areas are on opposite sides of the Earth, they're usually going to have different types of plants. However, your area can have both.

That doesn't mean you should just toss in plants at random, of course. Crops may begin as wild growth, but the difference between "gathering" and "agriculture" is cultivation. Your culture chose to seed these plants, year after year. They chose to do the hard labor of making room for them and tending to them because these plants gave your culture something. Food or shelter or necessary raw materials. Agriculture isn't random. The most valuable crops are the most versatile crops or the ones that are most vital.

These are the ones that get the most space, the most time, the most attention. If you can make a lot of different things out of it, or you absolutely have to have it, you grow it in as much quantity as you can. For instance, when doing the worldbuilding for Born of this Soil, I was looking up similar environments. River delta, fertile soil, near the ocean, with a warm and moist climate. In researching I came across a list of crops grown in such an environment and saw 'persimmon.' It piqued my interest. I've never had a persimmon. I've heard of them, of course, but I really had no idea what they were.

So I did some research; you can make so much stuff from persimmons! Seriously: breads, coffee(ish), tea(ish), beer, molasses, pies, jellies, candies, wine, brandy. Pickle them, dry them, grind them into fine powder and sprinkle them on other stuff. And I thought—much as I'm sure many among my culture would have—well, that takes care of half my needs right there! And I liked the idea of the persimmon, versatile little weirdo that it is, being their favorite fruit. They're considered an acquired taste, and because the Andoli have been conquered and are living under the rule of another culture, I wanted them to have things that were very distinctly theirs. The ruling Ephendri think it's a horrible taste, but since they profit from the sale of it, they have no reason to want to stop persimmon growth or sale. My Andoli characters even make and drink bootleg persimmon brandy, wine, and beer. It's something they share with one another, something which does not get offered or given to the Ephendri characters—for the most part, although there is one (maybe two) with whom it's a point of symbolism.

So, choose your crops with the same care that your culture would. Really think about what their needs will be and how they can satisfy them. Crops have to be grown and harvested, and that takes time. Some crops can be harvested more often than others, some provide more bounty than others, and some take more care and attention than others. You don't have to know the entire evolutionary history of a crop in order to use it well—although, you know I won't stop you if you want to know!—but you should have an idea of when they can have it, how long they can store it, how much they can do with it, and how much of it they'll need.

Choosing Plants and Crops

However, even if you're making up your own fruits, vegetables and grains, or making use of something we don't to any large extent, you might also consider tying it to something familiar. If you don't want your culture or species to feel completely alien to the reader, having them enjoy something that is familiar can help. Of course, you have to be careful with this. On the one hand, there are words you can use to describe the taste that aren't references to our own world—such as sweet, bitter, sour, spicy, rich—and then there are words that relate to substances that may or may not exist in your background—salty, sugary, peppery, nutty, buttery.

It is possible that your world contains these things, but each world is different. Even if they're on your world, it's possible that your culture or species doesn't have or use them, or they're too expensive for most people. Knowing where these things come from, how and where they're most likely to be found, or how they are made means allows you determine where they are and aren't.

This is another reason to consider a climate rather than a specific area. You can take plants from similar climates (the more similar the better, in fact) even if they do not belong to the same small geographical region. If you're worried that taking two different plants from radically different places will confuse the reader and make them unsure what they should be picturing, don't name the plant. Describe it instead. Can you name every tree you walk past? I can spot an oak, a magnolia, a dogwood, a crepe myrtle, a linden, a cypress, a birch, but I can't tell you want a maple looks like. I can't tell you the names of half the bushes I see just walking down the street are called. You don't have to name everything, name the ones that you think your readers will be able to picture and describe the rest.

Friday, April 27, 2012

New Urban Fantasy Out Today!!

It's been a long road, but today Getting Ahead comes out from MuseItUp Publishing! I really love this story for a lot of reasons, but mostly for its quirky, yet gritty, tone and its characters. I adored writing Nick and Renee. Y'all know my love of character interaction and these two let me have some real fun in that arena. They work together so well, and compliment one another so much, and they just won't stop with the snark! Not that I'd actually want them to, of course!

When Detective Nick D'Artori arrives at the scene of the Troll-Killer of Portal Park’s latest attack, he knows his night isn't going to be boring. Finding the Troll-Killer's victim alive—if missing one of his two heads—seems like a stroke of much needed good luck. But why would the victim, a royal guard, have wandered away from his duty? And was it only coincidence that the Troll-Killer happened to target him? The inconsistencies lead Nick and his partner, Renee Arbors, down a new road of investigation, but they’ll have to negotiate it while foiling mad bombers, carjackers and trollish magic.


Excerpt:

Nick's gaze slid to the portal eddying over the old oaks. Defined only by the circular, spiraling movement of its blue light, it was easily twenty stories in diameter. The attack had occurred in a secluded area, and though a mile from the portal at the park's center, it was bathed in electric blue portal-glow. The night became a grainy monotone, like an old movie on bad film. He'd never imagined such a thing existing, but in the last five years a host of strange things had become common sights. Trolls, centaurs, and gnomes stepped through the portal and became part of his world. Not elves, though. Apparently they were mythical everywhere.

Now he saw almost as many gnomes crossing the street as humans, stood behind them in line for his coffee and glared at them in traffic. Trolls and centaurs weren't as common, but he'd stopped to give directions to a group of centaur tourists just that morning. There had been a time when all he'd seen were humans. They were everything, the whole world. The only thing one could possibly mean when one said "people."

He'd been a beat cop when the portal materialized, patrolling Crown Street when the night suddenly burst to life. The air had grown thick and hard to breathe, carrying a charge like nothing he'd felt before, static electricity mixed with cold fire. The shoplifter he'd caught had run off and instead of giving chase Nick stood staring as blue light blazed over the city. Bright as dawn, but hours early and far too fast, he thought it must be an explosion of some kind, until he got a better view. The portal--which hadn't even existed just two minutes prior--loomed above City Park, its light inexplicable and terrifying.

Nationwide speculation became an epidemic. Fact, fiction, and theory blended together and soon became inseparable. Some insisted the Large Hadron Collider experiments, half a world away, were to blame. Some said magic had created it. Some called it the work of God. Which god became a dispute of its own. One way or another, the portal was there. They'd had to deal with it. "Chaos" best described the following years, although at times "panic" and "bedlam" also applied.

Now it had become the beating heart of the city, bridging the 'old' and the 'new,' joining them. Now it wasn't just a city. It was Portal City, and if the people in Washington hadn't decided to move closer, they paid attention to what went on. It didn't make his job any easier, yet Nick turned to the portal. He followed the variations in the shades of light, eddying in a giant circle defined by no-one-knew-what. It wasn't growing. It wasn't shrinking. It showed no signs of going anywhere, but it had taught Nick that nothing—absolutely nothing—lasted forever. His entire world could change in a single, impossible moment. Nothing was ever guaranteed to be the same tomorrow as it had been the day before.

He didn't know if he could forgive that.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Agriculture Basics: Location, Location, Location

Note: Sorry it took so long. The post kept growing and growing, and my life is chaos. Which, yes, is actually a perpetual state for me. So, on to agriculture and worldbuilding...

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There's a lot to know about agriculture, especially in the modern era. It's a science, and even historically it was complicated. Different cultures approach agriculture in different ways, and some are more tied to their products than others, although in a smaller area with less chance of travel, agricultural products tend to form a larger part of a nation's economy. I can't tell you how to grow crops, but I can help you figure out how your culture grows crops, what kinds of crops they're likely to grow, and maybe clarify how that fits into your culture's economy.

Location Considerations

The fact that different sorts of crops grow in different climates and locations isn't a surprise to anyone. Once you know what climate your culture/s is living in, you can research similar climates to find out what grows there in our world. Now, you may be making up new plants, fruits, grains, etc. Or, you might be supposing that things we don't (or can't) use as a food source are actually vital to your species or culture. All of that is great. If you want to create a truly unfamiliar or alien world, food is a really good way to communicate that difference. It's a basic necessity, and humans (as your readers are likely to be!) have distinct ideas about what it should be and how it should be eaten. Food is one of the biggies when it comes to the divides between cultures. How we prepare our food, season our food, and what bits we eat/don't eat/are forced to eat can tell your reader a lot about a people.

Remember that in an agriculture system, foods are seasonal. We only have a limited concept of this today because we can import foods from places which are in the grips of different seasons. In addition, our ability to preserve foods (in non-pickling ways) means that we can transport them farther and sometimes have them year-round. This isn't the case in lower tech backgrounds, although in higher tech science fiction backgrounds, it could be even more the case. Perhaps there are whole planets that serve as giant farms: The Bread Baskets of the system.

However, the growing location matters even more when food can only travel a given distance. If your nation is particularly large, there are probably sections of it which have some products while others don't. For instance, anything sea-related is unlikely to travel well, or last long enough to make it too far inland. Someone from the interior of a country is not going to be used to the foods they find on the coast. The same is true of a lot of different crops. Smaller nations may all have access to the same types of food, but you'll also need to consider how far outside of your nation crops and foods can be transported. That will affect which things can be traded with outside regions and which can't be, as well as what types of foods and crops will be found in the surrounding areas.

In addition, there are methods of food preservation which will allow your culture to transport some foods farther, or allow them to keep longer. Food preservation in lower tech backgrounds often meant pickling, smoking, or drying. Grapes become raisins through drying, just as plums become prunes. Dried banana can be really good. Many different types of vegetables can be pickled, from carrots to beets to cabbage to onions and on and on and on. It's important that you do your research because in low tech backgrounds food goes bad quickly. If it's something you wouldn't leave out overnight and still be willing to eat the next day, just think of what it would be like before pasteurization and preservatives.

Spices and seasonings may be common or uncommon in your world; it really depends on the environment in which your culture lives. Herbs and spices can, generally speaking, be fairly easily stored to retain their flavor, so they can be available to a wider audience than items like fruits and vegetables. However, the farther they have to go, the longer it takes, the more risk is involved in transporting them (to both the transporter and the cargo), and the more they cost.

If your culture lives surrounded by nutmeg and mace, than it's readily available, inexpensive, and probably a large part of the flavors of their local foods. Of course, there's every possibility that someone else wanted those flavors and it can reach a point where the people who grow the stuff can't afford to eat it because it's more valuable to them as a source of income.

Also consider the process needed to acquire the spice, crop, etc. There are a lot of ways to get salt (ocean, mining, salt flats), but some are going to produce more than others, some are going to require more hard labor than others, and all these different types of salt are… Well, different. Remember that the price of something depends on a number of things:

• How common is it?
• How many uses does it have?
• How much effort does it take to create/harvest?
• How far does it have to travel?
• How popular/necessary is it?
• Who controls it, and how tightly?
• How often is it available?

Fruits and vegetables are much less portable than herbs and spices. Some can be dried or pickled, such as peppers and plums (prunes). Some travel pretty well, such as potatoes and onions. Some are fairly delicate and aren't going to make it far, such as peaches. Apples are a whole other story because they release ethanol as they age and can actually speed other fruits and vegetables along. Imagine trying to transport those in a closed wagon over long distances!

So consider not only the location in terms of what can grow there, but in terms of what will make it out of there and what won't. Consider the different microclimates and regions of your nations. Foods can become synonymous with the areas from which they come, and you can use crops and foods to help define your cultures and to create boundaries between them.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Update

Well, that post on Basic Agriculture is still coming. I wasn't actually coherent this weekend (I don't think I'm totally coherent now, but other than that and a lingering cough, I'm doing much better!) and I didn't think it would be a good idea to edit and post what I'd written until I could guarantee I was at least making sense. Er, as much as I ever do. :-D

Unfortunately (to some degree of 'unfortunate'), I now have the final galley for Getting Ahead (!!!) to look over, a paper to write for class, and a read through of an article I wrote that needs a quick look over. Once I've got all that wrangled, I'll be all over the basic agriculture! Promise!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Worldbuilding: Creating Geography: Desert, Part 2

Note: You know how I said I had a lot of desert research thanks to A Sign in Blood? Yeah. I so wasn't lying. Plus, I found more in another notebook. :-D This series has gotten longer, but I'm not going to post it all in one go (or series of goes). This second post will be the last one on deserts for a little while, so that I can post on a couple of other topics (agriculture, agrarian cultures vs. non-agrarian cultures, and siege engines). However, I will be coming back to it fairly soon. Desert posts after this one will include desert landforms, plants and species, desert cultures, and some more generalized worldbuilding thoughts.

Also, all temperatures in this post are given in Fahrenheit.

Part 1 | Part 2

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Temperature

Many (but not all!) deserts are hot. One reason for this is the fact that many form near the equator, where sunlight is more direct and temperatures higher. However, this is also exacerbated by another influence; dry ground, rock, and sand are less capable of absorbing heat than is wet ground, plants or water by itself. So, as these surfaces are heated by the sun (especially the very direct sunlight near the equator), they release their heat into the air which then becomes hotter, especially the first 6 or 7 feet of air closest to the ground. Above that, temperatures can be dramatically cooler.

Deserts can also get very cold, very quickly, having a large shift in temperature between day and night. The reason is that these surfaces (sand, stone, dry ground) release heat easily, so once the sun goes down and the heat is no longer being constantly replenished, the heat bleeds off and the air cools. This cooling and reheating of desert air perpetuates the dryness of the desert. Because sand is such a poor conductor of heat, the sand below the surface also takes a good while to warm up. This cooler area allows organisms and creatures to be somewhat protected from the heat.

Because it is the direct sunlight which heats up the hot deserts, areas protected from the sun and dry winds (as by rock formations, oases, etc.) can also form microclimates. The microclimates (which includes the below surface sand) can be cooler and—protected from the drying wind—sometimes more moist. It is in these areas which life is most likely to be found.

However, not all deserts form within 30 degrees of the equator. The deserts of Central Asia (Gobi, Takla-Makan, etc.), for instance are caused by continentality (the drying of the air as it moves inland, bleeding off its rain in the more coastal regions), the rainshadow effect (or a combination thereof), so while they are dry, they are not necessarily hot.

The Gobi, considered a cold desert, actually does have some very hot temperatures in summer (up to 122 degrees), but can also reach lows of -40 degrees. The average temperature there is around 37 degrees, but it can change very quickly, with shifts of up to 60 degrees happening in as little as 24 hours. Snowcapped or frosty dunes are a somewhat familiar sight in some regions of the Gobi. Like most non-equatorial climates, the temperature depends upon the season. In summer, temperatures get to about an average of 66 degrees, while an average late winter day might be around 2 degrees.

Still, this is just one particular desert, in order to give you an idea of what kinds of temperatures you could be looking at when building such a place. Polar deserts are, obviously, much colder for much longer periods, but also are a very different biome.

However, if your characters or culture live in, or must travel through, a place like the Gobi desert, they're going to have to be prepared for the massive shifts in temperature. They may not just have to deal with the cold, but also with extreme heat. Or the possibility of very cold nights, with almost pleasant days. Dealing with the challenges presented by our environments is one of the things which makes a culture, one of the things that defines it. Finding unique or interesting solutions to your culture challenges can really make them come alive.

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Formation Considerations

And, lastly, a few more things to take into account when you're creating your deserts: continental drift, atmospheric changes, and volcanic activity. In short, things change and deserts were always something else at one point in time.

This is important to remember because your characters can, in fact, stumble upon lost civilizations chased away by volcanic eruptions, petrified forests half-buried beneath the sand, and fossilized creatures (practically, this mean hippos and elephants and such, but in fantasy or science fiction terms, dragons, dinosaurs, etc. Maybe even a dormant virus just waiting to be revived in an unsuspecting populace. You know, fun stuff! :-D).

So, keep in mind that things change over time and what is now a barely crossable obstacle for your characters or a challenging environment in which to build a civilization, could have once been a lush and thriving forest, a vast and powerful trade city that controlled most of the known world, or a massive tar pit in which many young dragons once met their tragic ends.

Even if you're not going to use those as plot elements, they make great visuals!

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Next week, I'll be discussing basic agriculture and hopefully I'll be able to fit it in one post of a reasonable length! Well, we'll see… :-D