B is for Botany
There was little enough to look at in the wildlands and medicinal herbs were so precious that his eye had a way of marking them whether he had immediate need of them or not. He knew he had seen no teaberries, no healershand, not even the dangerous comfort of phesok. There might have been gift-of-God and feverleaf by the bushel were this a warmer season, but the coming winter had turned it all to hidden roots. His memory showed him nothing but grass in all directions, dead thorns, and barren trees twisted out of shape by past storms. The only leaf he recalled with any medicine at all was deathweed, down by the stream, and if that was a sign from Sheul, Meoraq chose to ignore it. –The Last Hour of Gann
Sangar took a jar from Ven’s hand and sniffed it. “Alehoof,” she said, then gave Taryn another small smile. “Kruin does not see these things. I think he would find them difficult to understand, just looking at dried leaves and roots. But he believes you when you say there is something more to them than dead plants.” –The Army of Mab
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I grew up relatively rural. We didn’t have a farm or a ranch or anything like that, but the bus took forty-five minutes to get us to school and until they built the new shopping complex, we got our groceries two towns away. Standing on our front porch, we could see exactly one neighbor. At the end of our long driveway was another—the salty-mouthed, bull-butchering, steely-eyed widow, our beloved Mizz B.—with a scattering of small houses and RVs on the hills behind her. Our property was overgrown pastureland, surrounded on one side by the open field where Mizz B. grazed her cows and on every other side by wooded hills. When I walked my paper route in the afternoons, I could see Mt. Rainier among the distant Cascades, with snow glowing orange as the autumn sun set. I explored endlessly along the half-mile stripe of forest bordering Mizz B.’s field, grazing as her cows grazed on wild apples, chokecherries and huckleberries, uncurled fern tips, sweet clover blossoms and baby dandelion leaves. I ruined pair after expensive pair of jeans climbing trees where pungent sap flowed or wading through blackberry thorns and little seas of grass I couldn’t name for you now, but whose clinging burrs never came off no matter how many times you put it through the washer. I ran barefoot as often as I could, steering well clear of poison oak and ivy, stinging nettles and thistles.
Small wonder, then, that when I first begin to build an fantasy world or alien planet, I begin with its wildernesses rather than its cities or even its people. The people are where the story’s at, sure, and the cities grow depending on how those people think and work and dream, but the wild places came first—rocks and rivers and, yes, plants. Botany is sorely underappreciated in storytelling. And I can understand why. Unless it’s a giant man-eating flytrap or has all-purpose healing powers, plants don’t make good plot-points. But it’s a sad thing nonetheless to see something so vital so mistreated. Heck, in one of the greatest films of all time—
—the paleobotanist is an afterthought, invited to secure the cooperation of her paleontologist boyfriend, because his knowledge of fossils is necessary to understand living dinosaur behavior…in the same way any anthropologist can easily explain all human behavior. I feel so bad for Dr. Sadler. She gets one scene in which she wonders how extinct plants can be there, one scene in which she frets over those plants being there, and two scenes in which she uses her knowledge to solve the plant-related mystery of why the triceratops is sick and to explain why the so-called lysine contingency doesn’t work, which are both naturally edited from the movie. The rest of the time, she’s screaming and running like everyone else.
Why, I ask you? Apart from a weirdly-colored sky or fantastically unearthly cityscape on the horizon under a ringed moon, nothing says alien like a plant. They can look like anything, smell like anything, taste like anything. They can feed you, drug you, heal you, clothe you and kill you. And these are just the plants on Earth! Why don’t we see more of them in science-fiction and fantasy?
Because no one wants to read about them, that’s why. And it is a sad, unavoidable fact that only readers buy books.
With that in mind, very little of what I imagine makes its way into my books. Given that I write 400k word books, I’ll understand if you are skeptical, but it’s true. My Lords of Arcadia compendium contains 43 illustrated pages of uniquely Arcadian plants; I mention (count). Those I do mention are rarely described beyond some identifying feature—Taryn’s eyes the color of gedan fruit; gorupaw, the tubers eaten by the Arkes in place of potatoes; the tough outer rind of shai, which Eurydome peels so prettily. Even the great fields of crop grown by the Farasai receive no more than a nod and a name.
In Arcadia, there is some ‘drift’ as plants and even animals from Earth were carried over by accident or design at some point in those worlds’ shared past. I was able to plausibly mingle references to corn, lilies and willow trees among my fictional flora, but I don’t always get to do that. In The Last Hour of Gann, roughly 85% of the book takes place on an alien planet, where I ran headfirst into the metaphorical wall of a problem sci-fi writers have always had to combat: how much alien is too much?
I don’t remember where I read or heard this, but someone once described the reader of fiction as a jogger. You want your reader to enjoy his run, but he needs to keep a steady pace and get where he’s going in good time. Momentum, this person said/wrote, is the magic by which written words become mental movies. Every single thing that makes the reader break that momentum is like a weight attached to a jogger’s ankles. Sometimes, that’s a good thing; it’s okay to catch your breath after a hard climb or pause a moment to admire the scenery, or even just slow down to ponder your place in the universe.
However, this person warned, too many unfamiliar words or other details can exhaust your little man and eventually, he may give up. A writer should therefore keep an editing eye open whenever he or she introduces the strange or unusual. Keep it simple and, whenever possible, keep it on familiar ground. This is why so many fantasy worlds have wonderfully original inhuman characters galloping across shimmering plains toward crystalline towers…on horses.
I didn’t want to do that on Gann. I also didn’t want to bloat up an already oversized book with a lot of explanations every time Amber and the other human colonists looked around. So in a way, I cheated. The world of Gann is a desolate one in which its ecosystems are just beginning to stabilize after a long post-apocalyptic age. Rather than figure out how to incorporate hundreds of plants and animals in delicate balance as my colonists slogged across the plains, I instead could focus on only a hardy few. In Gann’s notebook, there are only eighteen plants, six insects and six living beasts, and still not all of them made it into the final draft. I felt safe referring in general to grass and thorns, reasoning that these forms of life have evolved in independent conditions on Earth and, this being an Earth-like planet, parallel development is not completely ridiculous. Getting a little bit away from botanical examples, I also mention gold once or twice, since gold is an element and stands a pretty good chance of being found elsewhere in the universe.
As with so many other aspects of worldbuilding, success stems from realism and subtlety. Medicinal herbs do not act instantly or with surgical precision and are rarely easy to prepare or administer. Edible foods do not always mean tasty foods; before they had years of agricultural selection and cultivation, most of the crops we eat today were much smaller and both looked and tasted very different. Most pre-industrial cultures ate subsistence foods, which usually meant little to no variety and nasty to boot, at least by Western standards. Intoxicants and hallucinogens often require some form of preparation, most are addictive, and in their natural form can demonstrate dangerously unpredictable dosage strength. Something else to consider is that most of the natural drugs we take today originally had a medicinal or spiritual purpose and their recreational use was forbidden, sometimes on pain of death. Pretty much anywhere you could name, the local people would have known how to best utilize every tree, bush, flower or vine, and they were not likely to use any of it lightly.
On my shelves are three reference books I have used on nearly every novel: The Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs, Scott Cunningham’s Magical Herbalism, and American Indian Healing Arts by E. Barrie Kavasch and Karen Baar. As always, there is the internet, which can be an invaluable resource once you weed out the plant-porn. (Heh heh. Weed) Bio.brandeis.edu/fieldbio/Sylvain/uses.html has a decent list of the more common medicinal plants organized by their medicinal use, which is handy. Anniesremedy.com/chart/php has them organized alphabetically or by use. For the more spiritual side of plants, check out themagickalcat.com or earthwitchery.com for an excellent herbal grimoire. And of course, nothing beats nature herself. Spend a day at your local botanical garden, browse a nursery, or just take a walk in the park. And when you put a plant in your world, ask yourself two questions: What does it do and how is it used? On the surface, those are similar questions, but the answers can be very different and those differences help define your world and the people who live there.