Geography Is Destiny (Worldbuilding Wednesday 8)

World Building Wednesday: A series of short posts in which I write about my personal theory of how I approach world building, specifics of things to consider, and practical suggestions on how to use world building in the text. This is not a prescriptive program. I don’t think people must do things the way I do. I talk about my process because it is what I know. That’s it. Short bites: long tail.

Few things throw me out of a story as much as physical geography that egregiously makes no sense. If a writer is going to set a story in a made up world, I think it behooves the writer to make the physical geography obey known and understood rules — unless the point of the story is that it specifically does not.

Physical geography looks the way it does for a reason. Do basic research. Consider wind patterns, ocean currents, plate tectonics, climate zones, types of vegetation.

For example, if there is a mountain range and prevailing winds, one side of the mountain range will likely have a rain shadow and be drier. Islands often have windward and leeward sides.

Our earth’s mantle is made up three general types of rock, each formed under different conditions: sedimentary, metamorphic, and igneous. If your civilization is building great monuments out of stone, think about where that stone might be coming from.

I’m not saying you have to work this all out in detail. And if you do, you don’t have to put it all in the book. But don’t have people growing water intensive crops in a desert region, unless you have shown how this society has extensive irrigation systems and how they are getting and storing water. Don’t have people growing cold intolerant crops in an climate zone where it snows during the winter, unless you have greenhouses. Don’t drop a Cascades mountain range equivalent into the story and place a massive deciduous forest on either side.

What kinds of resources do different regions have? There’s a reason coal is found in certain areas and not in others. Limestone quarries don’t exist everywhere, nor does marble. Salt can be panned or mined but in different places. There’s a reason for all that.

If you have a moon equivalent to Earth’s moon, then you will have tides and these will affect shorelines and harbors. If you have multiple moons or no moon, consider the consequences.

Listen, I get things wrong, and I’m sloppy at times. If you don’t want to create a geography out of whole cloth, it is to my mind a totally acceptable short cut to use Earth’s actual geography as a template, lifting out pieces, altering shorelines (within reason), or moving things around in a logical way.

The importance of physical geography doesn’t stop with the map itself.

People in traditional societies really know and understand their local geography — they know the landmarks and how to get around — and they know their local ecology because their survival depends on it.

Farmers were not ignorant primitive people grubbing helplessly in the dirt. Famine and crop disease were real disasters, and all too common, but any cursory examination of horticultural and agricultural practices in ancient societies shows that people did their best with the knowledge they had, and were often ingenious in how they adapted the water and soil resources at hand.

Fantasy societies where there is no apparent food source except an unseen supermarket is a pet peeve of mine: agriculture is crucial. Even when the story isn’t about that, I think writers ought at the least to know where the food people eat comes from. Agriculture will be the subject of another post.

Don’t assume your every day locals are ignorant about the physical world around them just because they don’t have a university education. I once read the opening of a piece of fiction set in an archipelago. An outside academic arrives in the islands to study the winds. There’s a throwaway line in which the academic asks the locals about the winds and they don’t know anything, they just have superstitious myths they’ve handed down from generation to generation. I stopped reading right there. Because it is the locals who are going to know, even if they couch their understanding in non academic terms. Their lives depend on their knowledge of the winds, tides, currents, and seasonal cycles.

I live in Hawaii. I race outrigger canoes, both sprint races and long distance. The most famous long distance race runs from the island of Molokai to the island of Oahu.

When you race long distance in an OC-6 (a canoe that seats six people), you go out with nine to twelve paddlers because your crew will switch out at intervals over the race (which may run from 24 – 42 miles). For example, you may paddle for thirty minutes, jump out of the canoe as another person pulls themselves in to the seat you just vacated, and swim to the escort boat (where your coach and extra paddlers wait). After half an hour in the escort boat you may jump into the ocean and, as the canoe races up beside you (and other floating paddlers ready to make the change), switch in again.

When you cross the open ocean, for example the Kaiwi Channel between Molokai and Oahu whose maximum depth is 2300 feet, there are multiple factors to take in to account, including:

1) the open ocean swells, their direction and height and frequency.

2) the winds — how strong, where are they coming from.

3) the ocean currents — which direction are they pulling, how fast.

4) the topography of the ocean floor itself, especially important when you are close to the shore.

These conditions change every day.

So when you are racing from Molokai to Oahu, the straight line, the shortest distance, may be the fastest route but maybe because of the winds, swells, and currents, it might be better to take a slightly longer route that swings farther out. You can win or lose based on whether you took the best route for that day in those conditions.

Many (not all) people today live a step or three removed from needing an intimate knowledge of their physical environment. We are insulated in so many ways. But in a fantasy setting it is probable that your characters will not be–and should not be.

So when you think about world building, think of an ocean-going race as your metaphor:

1. The straight line isn’t always the best path. Don’t make geographical choices based on novels you’ve read or from a generic and disconnected idea of the physical setting. Remember that people really live in this world and must react and respond to its conditions.

2. Know your environments. Remember that distinct areas have local ecologies, and that societies develop within these local ecologies as adaptations.


I’ll discuss culture ecology in April, but for the month of March I plan to take a detour into narrative maps and tropes, including a guest post on tropes by the redoubtable Juliet McKenna.

Next week: Narrative Maps

Previously: Introduction, The Flowering of an Image, Inductive to Deductive, Image to Idea: A Practical Idea, Deductive or Inductive: A Guest Perspective (Aliette de Bodard), The Map as Theory, Geography is Destiny

Official Kate Elliott Bookstore Launch

ETA (03/2021): The Kate Elliott bookstore is no longer open as an online store. I still have books available. If you are interested in purchasing books from me, please email me and ask about availability and postage costs. My email is

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In an effort to clear out some closet space that is currently taken up by way more author copies than I have room for, my stalwart assistant Cheri and I are launching a bookstore on my blog.

You can browse the categories and the individual books and box sets, from the Jaran series and Highroad Trilogy, favorites like the Spiritwalker trilogy and Crown of Stars series, and new releases like Court of Fives and Black Wolves.

ALL BOOKS WILL BE SIGNED and can be personalized if you want. I’ll also include a lovely postcard of the fabulous The Very Best of Kate Elliott cover with a fantastic illustration by Julie Dillon and excellent cover design by Elizabeth Story.

Be sure to check out the DISCOUNT section as well for special sale items: These are mostly books that have some yellowing or discoloration on the edges/spines but are otherwise in acceptable condition. A few have minor tears.

For those purchasing internationally I am sorry to have to mention (as you already know) that international postage for packages is obscenely expensive. But we will mail internationally; just note the postage costs. Because this is a new venture for me there may be some delays and bumps for the first month, but the goal is to send out a shipment every week.

A quick note about the bookstore: My business is writing, not bookselling. The money from some of the few complete sets will go to Partners in Health, a respected organization that builds access to health care in impoverished communities from the ground up. The rest will go to pay my assistant.

I can never thank my readers enough. You are honestly the best, and I hope you know that. My thanks for your continued support.

Sam & the Simorgh (Shahnameh Reading Project 6)

Join Tessa Gratton and me as we read the Shahnameh by Abolqasem Ferdowsi. We’re using the Dick Davis translation (Penguin Classics).

Today’s portion: Sam and the Simorgh

Synopsis: An interlude to introduce Sam, a Persian king(?) and his son Zal, who was raised by a giant bird.

TG: At first I thought this section was a true interlude – a full aside – and I’m surprised it’s really just a brief introduction to how Zal came into being as a wise and learned man. It’s all a set up for the next section, it seems.

I’m not sure what the point of it is in breaking it off of the full story of Zal that comes next, except to bolster the theme that it’s best to trust in God’s plan (Fate?) and love according to the laws of family and God’s command.

It was interesting that Manuchehr noticed that Zal has farr but no one else seemed to – though an argument could be made for the Simorgh noticing, and that’s why she saved his life and raised him instead of feeding him to her chicks. This might be a clue to how farr works, or just further evidence that farr is mysterious, and purposefully so.

The list of gifts that Manuchehr gave to Sam when he sent him off reminded me strongly of the long list of gifts Hrothgar gives Beowulf, and I wonder at that as a similar narrative technique. I wonder if there are parallels in how the list of riches are used in each epic. Obviously it’s a display of wealth and a way to prove the importance of the characters involved, gratitude, and promise. But surely there are important connotations lost on us reading hundreds of years later.


KE:  Yes, gift giving customs are such a crucial part of social stability. I haven’t done any specific reading on this issue but I am pretty sure that at this level of kingship (proto state kingship, I guess I will call it?) rulers lavish gifts upon their followers as a means of creating and sustaining ties of loyalty and obligation. It’s also a form of wealth re-distribution, since Zal can, theoretically, then gift some of these things on to his own followers (although we don’t see that).

I loved this line, spoken by Sam to Zal: “It is right to say what is in your heart like this; say it, say whatever you wish.” Sounds very modern! Which is followed immediately by a statement about the astrologers and how “we cannot quarrel with the heavens.” I love how aspects of the story feel so emotionally understandable while other elements clearly include cultural knowledge that I totally lack.

All the paintings illustrating this episode show Zal as an albino, which isn’t quite how I understood it from the text when Sam says, “his black body, and his hair as white as jasmine.” Earlier the infant is described as having a body “like pure silver,” and I can’t quite reconcile silver and black. They seem like such contrasts to me. Regardless, it seems he is albino, a fascinating choice.

Also while googling images for next week I realized the importance of this prologue for Zal, to be followed by the long episode (next week) of his courtship of Rudabeh: They are the parents of the central hero of the Shahnameh, Rostam.

Here is a lovely painting of the Simorgh bringing Zal to Sam.

Sam & Simorgh

Painting of Sam kneeling on the ground. The simorgh with tail flared in in four sections flies down to meet him, bearing his son Zal.

2015 In Review

My publications:

January: Review of Rosemary Kirstein’s Steerswoman series in Cascadia Subduction Zone

February: The Very Best of Kate Elliott (Tachyon Publications)

Started Remembering Japan memoir

Smart Bitches tribute post

Eggs, Bees, & Toilets

March: Writing Women Characters



August: Court of Fives

Blog tour


November: Black Wolves

December: Night Flower

The Beatriceid


Coming in 2016:

Poisoned Blade (Court of Fives 2) (August 2016)

Anything else is unconfirmed as of this time.


Release Week Giveaways

THE VERY BEST OF KATE ELLIOTT is already available to purchase in both paper and ebook, but the OFFICIAL PUBLICATION DAY is tomorrow, Tuesday 10 February.

To celebrate I am giving away a copy of the trade paperback version, one each on Facebook, Tumblr, & Twitter where you can find me at KateElliottSFF.

Int’l okay. All giveaways end on Wednesday evening when I will choose a winner from each platform.



The Time Roads by Beth Bernobich: An Enthusiasm

[I don’t have the temperament to write reviews so from now on I am going to call my “reviews” of books and media and other such things “enthusiasms.”]



It turns out Beth Bernobich’s novel THE TIME ROADS is what’s called a “fix-up novel,” in which linked stories, collected into a single volume, tell a fuller story when read together than they do when read separately because of their shared narrative elements. Normally I might be a bit skeptical that I could enjoy a novel of linked pieces as much as a complete seamless novel; I might even doubt that such a technique could tell as full a story as a novel in terms of a full narrative arc and growth and change within complex characterization.

Fear not, Bernobich manages it easily in this entertaining, well-done, and often sobering tale.

I’m not going to give you a run-down of the plot or characters except to say that it is a finely-wrought alternate history that follows the reign of a young queen of Eire (Ireland).

These are some of the things I most appreciated about THE TIME ROADS:

1) The writing is strong both stylistically (it’s a pleasure to read such assured prose) and in terms of how expertly Bernobich deploys detail and action in the right amounts.

2) The world-building is aces. I’m a hard sell on world-building, and Bernobich does SO MUCH both in terms of limning her setting and in suggesting how this alternate history departs from our own. I could read a trilogy set in this world. It’s fascinating, rich, and remarkable in how much she implies without any infordumping.

3) The science and math of time travel, and the unfolding of brilliant minds at work untangling strange and esoteric questions, intrigued me mightily.

4) Deft characterization that flows through all four stories regardless of who is the point of view character. I believed in all the interactions, in the highs and lows, approaches and retreats, the triumphs and defeats, and watching the two main characters mature and age and live their lives was so satisfying. The story isn’t a comedy, and isn’t quite tragedy; it has the feel of lived lives, hard choices, bitter draughts, and quiet victories.

Just a lovely book that I’m so glad to have read.

Published by Tor Books in the USA, in trade paperback and ebook.

Bestselling Women’s Fiction Book Club: The Schedule for the Rest of the Year

This is reprinted from Justine Larbalestier’s blog because I’m too lazy to write up my own version:


Kate Elliott and I have started a Bestselling Women’s Fiction Book Club together. Our criteria is that each book be a bestseller, classified as women’s fiction, be published between the end of World War One and twenty years ago. So no books from before 1918 or after 1994. We also decided not to look at any books by living authors. That way if we hate a book we can truly let rip. So far we’ve discussed Jacqueline Susann’s The Valley of the Dolls here on Justine’s blog and Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything here.

So that more of you can join in here’s what we’ve got planned for the rest of the year. All of these books are in print and available as ebooks except for A Many-Splendored Thing and Imitation of Life. Turns out Imitation is still in print in the US. We’ve scheduled it for September so you’ll have plenty of time to inter-library loan or find them second-hand:

May: Grace Metalious Peyton Place (1956). This book was a huge blockbuster in its day and was made into an equally popular movie. I read and loved it as a kid but have memories of finding everyone’s behaviour very odd. This one was suggested by many different people.

June: Ann Petry The Street (1946). I confess I’d never heard of this one until Kate suggested it. Ann Petry was the first African-American woman to have a book sell more than one million copies. Set in Harlem in the 1940s. I cannot wait to read this one.

July: Patricia Highsmith Price of Salt aka Carol (1952). This was the first mainstream lesbian novel to not end miserably. Highsmith wrote it under a pseudonym. It sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Highsmith is one of my favourites but this book is nothing like her other books as it doesn’t make you despair of the human condition. It’s almost cheerful.

August: Winifred Holtby South Riding (1936). Kate and many others suggested this one. I’d not heard of it.

September: Han Suyin A Many-Splendored Thing (1952). This is set in Hong Kong and China. Han’s The Mountain is Young is one of my favourite books but I’d never read her most popular book Splendored. Partly because it was made into a crappy movie, Love is a Many Splendored Thing, with an unspeakably awful song of the same title in 1955. I hate that song so much that it put me off reading the book. What can I say? Every time I read the title the song pops into my head. Like, right now. Aaaarrrgh!

Then in October we’ll be doing something slightly different. We’ll be reading two books together. They’re both about a black girl who passes as white. One was written by a black woman, Nella Larsen, and was not a bestseller. The other by a white woman, Fannie Hurst, was a huge success and made into two big Hollywood movies. (I wrote a comparison of the movies here.) Interestingly it’s much easier now to get hold of Larsen’s work than it is Hurst’s. Even though in her day Hurst had multiple bestsellers and was crazy popular. When you read the books you’ll discover why. If you wind up skimming the Hurst we won’t judge. At all.

October: Nella Larsen Passing (1929) and Fannie Hurst Imitation of Life (1933). I’ve read both of these. The Larsen is far superior on pretty much every count. But they’re both fascinating documents of their time. (Passing is available as part of the collected fiction of Nella Larsen: An Intimation of Things Distant.)

November: V. C. Andrews Flowers in the Attic (1979). This one is mostly for Kate who for some strange reason has never read it. Me, I have read it multiple times. When I was twelve I thought it was the best book ever written. *cough* Why I have even blogged about Flowers. V. C. Andrews was my Robert Heinlein. Only much better, obviously.

December: Barbara Taylor Bradford A Woman of Substance (1979). If I have read this I have no memory of it. I don’t remember the mini-series either. Again many people suggested this one.

Thanks so much for all your suggestions. They were most helpful. Keep ‘em coming. Maybe we’ll keep doing this next year. I hope so. We’d especially love if you can recommend books by women of colour that fit our bill. Even if they’re not bestsellers, like Passing, we can read them against what was selling at the time.

And, of course, do please join in. We’d love to hear what you think of these books in the coming months.

My 2013 In Writing

For 2014: GoH at Fantasycon 2014 (York, U.K.) I’m super stoked! If you can make it, do! (September 5 – 7)

I also plan to attend Loncon 3 (London Worldcon), which is shaping up to be quite an event.

It’s unlikely I’ll be attending any conventions in the USA in 2014.


As it happens, 2013 was a remarkably packed year for me, publication-wise:

February 2013:

Apex Magazine‘s Shakespeare-themed Issue 45 included a reprint short story “My Voice Is In My Sword” and an interview.


May 2013:

Fearsome Journeys edited by Jonathan Strahan (Solaris/S&S) with an original novelette for this sword & sorcery/epic fantasy anthology, “Leaf and Branch and Grass and Vine.”


June 2013: (the Big Event of my publishing year)

Cold Steel: Spiritwalker Book Three (the final volume of the trilogy)

Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review and said “Elliott pulls out all the stops in this final chapter to a swashbuckling series marked by fascinating world-building, lively characters, and a gripping, thoroughly satisfying story.” Yes, that makes me happy. There are a number of reviews of the novel I really adore but I will spare you quoting them all because I am humble and polite that way.


July 2014:

Open Road Media published 8 of my backlist novels in ebook form. Whoo!

(The 4 Novels of the Jaran, the Highroad Trilogy, and The Labyrinth Gate)


August 2013:

The Secret Journal of Beatrice Hassi Barahal.

[The link is to the PDF version. The print version is currently out of stock BUT more copies are in and it should be available in the print version again by January 10.]

An illustrated short story, text by Kate Elliott and AWESOME black & white illustrations by the spectacular (and Hugo-nominated!) artist Julie Dillon. This was a blast to write and I love the illustrations SO MUCH. Let’s call it “Bee’s version of the events, with a coda.”


Fall 2013:

The audiobook for Cold Magic came out from Recorded Books.


October 2013:

Unexpected Journeys, edited by Juliet E. McKenna, an anthology of fantasy stories for the British Fantasy Society. An original novelette, “The Queen’s Garden.” This anthology is only available to members of the BFS, but I hope to reprint the story elsewhere in the upcoming year.


Also: ALL of the Crown of Stars novels (DAW in the USA and Orbit UK in the UK) are now availlable in ebook versions as well as print. Because The Crossroads Trilogy is also in e-format, all my published novels can now be easily obtained. E-books are changing the field in massive ways whose fall-out we cannot yet predict, but in terms of a backlist it has been a great thing.


That covers publication of fiction. My favorite posts of the year (ones I wrote):

The Creole of Expedition: Part One and Part Two


Charles A Tan kindly did a Storify of my tweets about “SF Civility

Love and Infatuation in the Spiritwalker Trilogy

Spiritwalker Inspirations and Influences.

The Status Quo Does Not Need World Building

On Fan Art (and how it inspired The Secret Journal).

I’ve missed something I should have listed but if I’d remembered what it was I wouldn’t have missed it.

Liz Bourke did an interview with me on Tor.Com that I quite like.

And Aidan Moher (A Dribble of Ink) and I did a re-read of Katharine Kerr’s excellent DAGGERSPELL that I thought went really well.


What’s ahead for 2014?

The two convention appearances in the UK. And a lot of writing.

Forthcoming projects:

A short story collection with Tachyon Publications. (2015)

A YA fantasy (Little Women meet epic fantasy with a dash of Count of Monte Cristo) from Little Brown Young Readers. (2015)

An epic fantasy with Orbit Books.

I’ll keep you posted.

I have two more Julie Dillon illustrations, these in color, that I will be releasing into the wild ASAP.

Most importantly, thank you to all of my readers. This can happen because you are all reading/listening/etc, and I treasure each and every one of you.