Life is what you make it...


Look out the window--what do you see? The oak tree in the middle of the yard, and a squirrel or two cavorting above while finches peck at the millet seed feeder you put on the lowest branch. The grass needs to be mowed, and a mole has taken up residence near the back bushes.

It's no different if you're in the midst of urban sprawl. You're going to see life: pigeons patrolling the sidewalks for scraps of discarded bagels, ornamental trees set in a row along the street, a spray of color from a window box of flowers, weeds defiantly waving green arms from their hold in a pavement crack.

You see life. A thousand different forms of it.

And you want your fictional world to reflect that same infinite variety. You want the reader to have a sense of the richness around your characters, and you want those characters to interact with it as you interact with the world around you.

But on an alien world, there aren't going to be oak trees, squirrels or pigeons. No, you need to create a whole new set of flora and fauna. A daunting task... No, I did not create all the creatures and plants used in DARK WATER'S EMBRACE first. I'm not that obsessive that I needed to have the entire world in place before I could write it. Truthfully, I was writing all along, from the time I saw the first scene in my head, through the creation of the aliens and through the working out of the human society and their lineage.

I continued to write. But whenever it seemed appropriate during the story, I would invent an animal or plant--and then immediately jot it down in another file for reference, so that future descriptions of it would be consistent and so that I could (and would) use it again.

Nor do you need to have a full description of the plant or animal in your book. In fact, it's better if you don't. After all, how would you react to finding this passage in mainstream fiction:

"Denise, look at the small rodents with gray fur, long furry tails, and agile front paws over there, eating those oval-shaped, hard-shelled brown nuts with the woody cap."

Tough to read, isn't it? What you'd expect to read is the following:

"Denise, look at the squirrels over there, eating acorns!"

Remember that. When you're writing, you have to watch the full-blown descriptions, whether in dialogue or exposition. It sounds false. I prefer to have the name of the creature give a good sense of what it is, what it does or how it works. Names are important. You can call your alien bird a "qror" but reading the word "qror" doesn't help me visualize it. But calling it a "sawtooth" (as in "Look at that sawtooth over there") gives the reader an instant visual cue.

The other thing you must remember is the old mantra: There Has To Be A Reason. The plant or animal needs to make sense for the climate and topography. Nothing exists in a vacuum -- those creatures you create also need to eat, need to reproduce, are solitary or herd animals, or mature in different forms through their life-cycles. You want to give a sense of the web of life of which everything -- from the sentient alien race to the humans to the plants and animals -- are all a part.

Yes, of course my compendium of plants and animals was also going to be an appendix, and yes, it's been excised from the book. So once again, here's what I'd put together. Bear in mind that these extended entries are not in the text of DWE -- in the book, I mentioned "amberdrop trees" and gave a short description and that's about all.

The most important component in writing is not what you put in, but what you leave out.


A Brief Compendium of Selected Flora and Fauna

Amberdrop

Amberdrops are deciduous trees with purplish, thick leaves. They have multiple trunks, and a grove of them is more a single organism than a collection of individual trees. Amberdrops prefer moist soil along streams or swamps. There are several sub-species, only two of which become good-sized trees. The leaves vary from species to species, but all are characterized by the ability to seep a thick, yellowish substance. Insects are attracted to the sweet-smelling substance, and become trapped and quickly covered, so that they do not decay. By late summer, a single amberdrop tree may have 'collected' several thousand insects and the occasional small bird or lizard. In fall, the leaves shrivel--forming upright cups--but do not drop from the tree, and the sap become thin and runny. The entombed insects fall into the funnel formed by the coiled leaves and are there absorbed by the tree.

Bell Root

A medicinal plant with analgesic properties. Bell root is found in dry, rocky soil, and is characterized by spiked, hard leaves and a shallow root system with knobby protrusions.

Bluefern

A common lowland plant fond of swampy or moist soil. The bluefern has thin, feathered leaves with a distinct azure cast.

Bumblewort

A furry, placental mammal about the size of a terrier. Slow, thick-bodied, the bumblewort looks clumsy as waddles through the brush searching for the succulent roots which are its primary food source. The bumblewort has sharp claws and teeth, used for digging and tearing, and can defend itself quite well against its enemies, despite the clumsy appearance. Bumbleworts are generally brown with black stripes, though one sub-species is tiger-striped.

Coney

A small, agile mammal inhabiting brushy fields and forests. Coneys have the third sightless eye, and are quick to startle with changes in lighting, making swift, bounding leaps away to cover. The coney's muscular back legs are nearly twice the length of their front paws, and they are generally bipedal, reverting to four-legged locomotion only in flight. Unlike their earth namesake, the coney is not particularly rabbit-like except for the hopping flight mechanism. They have no outer ears at all, only ear holes, and more resemble a meercat than a rabbit.

Curltongue

A small, beakless bird, several species of which are brightly colored. Curltongues feed on flowering plants and amberdrop sap, sipping the nectar with their namesake long and agile tongues.

Faux-wheat

A wheat-like grain, which when milled produces a slightly sweet, coarse flour suitable for bread-making. Faux-wheat has a reddish cast, and bread made from the flour is dark.

Globe-Tree

Not a true tree at all, but more a giant fern, sometimes reaching heights of twenty-five meters. The leaves are variegated, profuse, and large, growing from ground to peak. The name comes the spiky extensions that sprout from the middle of the ferns, at the end of which grows a round fruit the size of a basketball. The inedible seedball ripens through spring and summer, until in fall it cracks explosively, the sound audible from some distance, scattering seeds up to a quarter-kilometer away. There have been reported injuries from people being hit by a globe-tree seed, though no deaths.

Goathen

A large, flightless bird-like mammal with downy feathers. Goathens can grow to the size of the earth ostrich. The head is cluttered with several knobby extrusions, and the goathens demeanor can be decidedly belligerent at times, especially in the wild. The goathen has been domesticated in the last several decades, and is kept both for its meat and for the thin milk it provides.

Groundslug

A large, unshelled land mollusk, dark brown with bright green irregular spots. The groundslug can range up to a meter long. The slimy covering of the groundslug is caustic, and can cause chemical burns to unprotected skin, and evidently acts as a deterrent to animals that would prey on the slow, otherwise defenseless creature.

Honeydipper

Flying insects about 7-8 centimeters in length, with thick, brightly-colored bodies. Honeydippers are not hive insects, but solitary. They feed on the nectar of flowering plants, but do not process it as food. Rather, they take the nectar and deposit it around their burrow, using it as bait to lure unwary insects into range, which are then killed by specialized forearm pincers which both hold the victim and at the same time inject a fast-acting neurotoxin. Honeydipper poison is toxic to humans, though rarely life-threatening.

Ice-Borer

The bane of wintering animals. Ice-borers inhabit lakes and pools in rivers and streams. Hibernating in the muddy lake-bottoms in the warmer months, they awake in late fall when ice begins to form. Ice-borers are able to detect infrared radiation via a specialized organ in the middle of their heads. When they detect heat on the ice above (usually a jaunecerf or some other animal looking for water, though careless humans are not immune), the ice-borers, usually working as a quartet consisting of two mated pairs, will rapidly use the hard, ridged spines that line its spine to open the ice around the prey animals -- the spines are substantially warmer than the rest of the ice-borer, and that heat aids the ice-borer in opening the hole. Once the prey animal falls into the icy water, the ice-borers attack, gripping the animal in their strong jaws and dragging them underneath the ice to drown and be eaten. During its mating season in early winter, the ice-borers call to their potential mates in long, melancholy grunts.

Jaunecerf

A deer-like animal hunted for food by the human colonists of Mictlan. The jaunecerf has a yellowish coat in the summer, which darkens to nearly orange in winter. Like many Mictlanian animals, it has a third, sightless eye high on the forehead that registers changes in illumination, and a doubled tongue.

Land Barnacle

A shelled creature infesting trees and rocks in moist environments. The shell is much the same shape and size of the earth sea-barnacle, though the shell is smooth and brightly colored, different species sporting different colors and patterns. The land barnacle, however, is not a mollusk, but a shelled reptilian creature, feeding on fungi growing on the surface it inhabits.

Nik-Nik

The nik-nik is a fleet four-legged mammal with a light, woolly coat, large ears, and heavy, cloven hoofs. Nearly blind, the nik-nik relies on echo-locating clicking calls to navigate through the forests it inhabits--hence its name. The adult nik-nik has a series of horny spikes along the spine and down the legs which the nik-nik can raise in danger.

Pear-nut

A small, bushy fruit tree with tiny, spiky leaves. The pear-nut fruit is about the size of an orange, bright green when ripe, and hard-shelled with a granular interior that when scraped yields a whitish paste. The taste, according to the original colonists, is somewhat similar to the earth pear, though pear-nut paste is generally balled and left to harden and served in that fashion, sometimes garnished with spices

Proto-wolf

A carnivorous pack animal, though not overly wolf-like despite its name, looking more like the front of a jackal grafted only the rear of small horse. The proto-wolf has spiky gray-to-brown fur, a thick, smashed-snouted nose, lean body and short-clawed paws. The back legs are longer and more muscular than the front, lending the animal a sloped, crouched appearance even at rest. The packs communicate with high-pitched squeals which are audible over long distances at night. Packs out hunting are afraid of nothing, and will attack animals far larger than themselves. Circling the chosen prey, the proto-wolves dart in whenever an opportunity presents itself to nip at legs or flanks, slowly wearing down the opponent until it falls exhausted, at which point it is doomed. The pack attacks in concert, ripping and tearing at the prey.

Puffwort

A small relative of the globe-tree, the puffwort is a prolific bush with greenish to purplish fan-shaped leaves. Like the globe-tree, the puffwort grows a central spike from which dangled a seedball that ripens in the fall. Unlike the globe-tree, the ripe seedball remains intact until contact by some animal, bird or large insect causes it to rip open, usually enveloping the poor victim in a cloud of whitish, sticky spores, which adhere for a time to the hapless victim before dropping off, thus spreading the seeds over a large area.

Redwing

A large flying insect, with bright red, translucent wings over a handspan wide, now rather rare. The founders of the human colony on Mictlan told of huge swarms of redwings filling the sky, so many that the sun was dimmed and bloody through their wings. Not much is known of the redwing due to their current scarcity.

River Grouper

A large fish inhabiting the rivers around the colony. The adult river grouper is on to two meters long, thick-bodied, and slow. The river grouper's usual feeding tactic is to sit on the muddy bottom of the river with its mouth open and its long tongue extended--the end of the river grouper's tongue has a knobbed shape that resembles a small fish. By wriggling this 'lure' the river grouper attracts schools of small, minnow-like fish. The river grouper will then trash from its resting place and feed. River Groupers can be easily snared with seines, though they are muscular and can put up a tremendous fight before being subdued. The meat of the river grouper is white and succulent.

Sawtooth

A large carnivorous sea-bird with a gray breast and white wings with pale orange stripes. The head is large, sitting atop a long neck, and it has exceedingly keen sight. Adults can reach the size of a condor, and can present a threat even to humans. The sawtooth is not actually toothed, but the large beak is lined with tooth-like, razor-sharp ridges, hence the name. The sawtooth rarely ventures more than a few kilometers inland, and prefer offshore islands where the winds are reliable. An adult sawtooth is too heavy to fly on windless days, and is itself vulnerable in that state.

Skimmer

Skimmers are brightly-colored birds who prefer swampy or boggy land. They scoop up insects, water plants, and fish with their wide beaks as they fly over shallow pools, their white-plumed breasts seeming to almost touch the water. Skimmers leave distinctive clover-leaf tracks in the mud.

Spindle-leg

A colony insect, with eight long legs and a thick carapace. The spindle-leg is a burrowing insect, creating colonies that may range over several meters with several entrances and exits. Usually found in dry soil, though the red-backed species prefers the muddy ground near the river. Spindle-legs will bite when threatened, though they are non-poisonous.

Starnose

A burrowing mammal, with clawed front feet, dark fur, and a distinctive, fleshy nose. The starnose is blind and deaf, having no organs of sight or hearing at all. They do possess a keen sense of smell, and can evidently feel vibrations through their body. They feed on worms and grubs, as well as the roots of succulent plants. In the faux-wheat fields, they are a destructive pest.

Stink-flower

Aptly-named, the stink-flower is a smallish tree, no more than six meters high, with a thick, ridged trunk and large flowers that bloom year-round. The stink-flower produces a strong odor that attracts insects and small birds from long distances, but in the interior of the cup-shaped flower is a pool of tarry material that traps the victim. Oddly, unlike its cousin the amberdrop, the stink-flower does not consume the insects or birds that it traps. The stink-flower lives in a symbiotic relationship with a crustacean-like creatures that lurk in the long splits in the trunk. The crustaceans exude a chemical that allows them to walk in the tarry vessels of the flowers without becoming stuck. They eat the prey caught there, then return to their homes in the trunk. The stink-flower gets sustenance from the droppings (quite malodorous themselves) of the crustaceans, which fall into the earth around the trunk of the tree. While the stink-flower is not a pleasant neighbor, the tar (odorless itself) has uses for creating water-tight and flexible seals.

Sweetmelon

A sprawling ground vine with large, thick-veined leaves. The sweetmelon produces brilliant white blossoms in the early summer, and large varicolored melons in the fall, the meat of which is sweet and juicy. Sweetmelons must be picked before they become too ripe, however, for the juice ferments inside the melon quickly. Wildlife eating too-ripe or rotting sweetmelons have been found intoxicated and sick.

Tartberry

A prickly vine with bright yellow leaves and a red fruit. Growing on sandy hillsides, the tartberry forms thick, nearly impenetrable brambles. The fruit is marginally edible, thought extremely sour even when fully ripe.

Thorn-vine

A vine whose main trunks, when injured, drip a thin, viscous oily sap that dries quickly to seal the cut. The thorn is nearly leafless, the entire surface chlorophyll-filled. The thorn-vine produces long, dagger-like namesake thorns, which make a formidable hedge. The sap has found several uses, including medical ones.

Toothworms

More accurately, "toothed worms." These are earth-boring carnivorous worms about 25-50 centimeters in length, whose mouths are ridged with tiny, spiny teeth. Blind, a toothworm turned up in a shovelful of dirt will bite at anything radiating heat. The bite is painful, as the toothworm injects a small amount of poison into its victim. The bite could be potentially fatal to infant, though not to adults.

Tree-leaper

Lemur-like, tree-dwelling marsupials inhabiting the western portions of the northern continent of Mictlan. Tree-leapers live in communal groups and are extremely territorial and will defend their nesting trees against much larger intruders, such as humans. A lone tree-leaper is no match for a human, but the swarming attack of a tribe of them can be dangerous.

Verrechat

A small, cat-like marsupial with transparent or lightly tinted skin and muscles. Sometimes domesticated.

White-bean

A semi-domesticated bush which yields pale-colored bean in bunches of six to ten. The bean is sweet, with meaty kernels.

Whitewood

A tall tree with heart-shaped leaves with three to five lobes, light purple above and hairy underneath. The outer layer of cream-colored bark peels away to reveal wood that is nearly white. The hard, coarse-grained wood is used for furniture, boxes, and woodenware. The fruits of the whitewood are a string of three or four "buttonballs"

Wizard

Literally, "winged lizard." Tree-dwelling lizards with scaly feather and a large flap of loose skin running the length of their bodies. A large, mutated forefinger nearly half the body length of the wizard is attached to this flap--when extended, this wing allows the wizard to fly short distances. This is true flight, not merely gliding. There are several species of wizard, each with characteristic patterns with the adults varying in size from 10 centimeters to over a meter. The Blue Wizard is particularly gregarious and forms large colonies which may number up to several hundred members.


A view from the shore...

This ends the journey. I hope you've enjoyed the glimpse into my thought processes while creating the world for DARK WATER'S EMBRACE. As I said at the outset, this is not being put forth as the only or the 'right' way to create a world--I can guarantee that I will take a different path with the next world, because it will demand it, as will yours. Instead, this is an example of a way, a guide.

Go, and do better.


 

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