Being Inspired by Nature

by Chris McMahon

I love nature. When my head is swirling around there is nothing better than going for a walk. One of the nice things about Brisbane is that its quite green, with plenty of trees and flowering plants and larger sections of forest accessible to most suburbs. I live near Toohey Forest, a large area of native open eucalypt forest on Brisbane’s south side. Being in contact with living things and seeing that beauty is a welcome tonic.

That expression of nature is something that I also love in fiction. It’s probably no accident that many of my favourite fantasy books feature characters who live in remote locations, with plenty of treks through the forests and anxious chases between hunter and quarry through the mountains. David Gemmell’s books often featured a loner hero, living in the cabin in the woods. The wild country was a real part of the setting with most of his books, and the Rigante series is a good example.

A lot of the books that I have read depict European or northern hemisphere ecology – oaks, elms and holly, deer and rabbits etc. I have always enjoyed this setting in fiction, but when it comes to writing I am often torn about what to portray.

In contemporary fantasy, I describe what I see around me – the Australian forests and animals – and their magical equivalents. However, when the setting is a completely constructed fantasy world, the choices become less clear cut. Describing the typical Australian natives in this sort of imagined world would probably lead to bafflement on the part of non-Oz readers and perhaps even a feeling of discomfort for dedicated Fantasy readers who pefer the traditional European setting.  Sometimes I have taken the middle road and tried to create my own plants and animals, but this soon gets exhausting, and if the background setting is not a feature of the books (as it is for say Michael Swanwick or Neal Asher where is it integral to the story), then it is annoying and distracting for the reader.

So how do you handle natural settings in your fiction?


  1. I like to use familiar places as settings. Not necessarily with the same names.

    I grew up in California, a horse-mad teenager, riding trails that were established before California was a state. A small (mostly imaginary) town just off the river is the scene of one of my early (and probably never to see the light of public scrutiny) series. The rolling hills of summer dried grasses and big oaks get described from an overly ideallistic memory, but without deliberate changes.

    I vacation regularly along a stretch of the Pacific coast. That’s become the (parallel Earth) childhood home of several characters of mine, so it gets described, terrain, redwood trees and architechture almost the way it is. I have replaced the extremely-car-sick-making Highway One with a modern fast rail.

    The city placed about where San Francisco is has hills. Steep. Lots.

    And then I had to develop some alien biota for an early Mars. With the atmosphere thinning to the point of near unbreathability, and extreme dryness, I decided the plants ought to be as likely to eat the anaimals as the other way around. And use them as pollen transporters and so forth. Lots of earthy examples around, that even described truthfully would sound alien to anyone but a botanist. I sought inspiration, and didn’t try for exactness.

    Which, getting around to your Australian foliage, might be the best way to handle the matter. Call them something else, and perhaps change a trait or two. But with a large part of the English reading public being non-Australian, you could have (what we think is) wonderfully alien scenes. The cinnimon scented Yptus forests, and offshore the reefs of deadly man eating pentas and so on. There might be a few inside jokes that only Australians would get, but that’s not all bad, either.

    In an interconnected world, with increasingly large e-markets, you may find it necessary to write for your current main market, Australians, but also appeal to foreigners, and expand your readership. So, making a known wilderness _just_ strange enough for the Australians will probably leave it very foreign to the rest of us.

    1. Hi, Pam. Some very evocative descriptions of those settings you experienced – makes me want to visit:)

      I get inspired by all kinds of weird life, including crazy Australian animals.

      When I was reading your early Mars setting, I immediately thought of how Australian eucalypt species have evolved to cope with very dry environments by increasing their oil content. There is even a species that grows & stays green in the snow – the oils preventing damage to the leaves and preventing the trunk from ‘exploding’ with freezing temperatures. Like the idea of animal chasing plants though, I’ve often been fascinated by the possibilities there.

  2. I’m a child of the North American steppe, enough so that I get claustrophobic in forests or if I can’t see weather coming. Thus far, all my pieces but one have been set on Earth-like worlds, and that one takes place underground, so the external environment was not important. I’ve not been daring enough to really venture far from my own experience thus far, in part because I am a geology buff and would probably bore 2/3 of my readers to death with loving descriptions of alien stratigraphy and unconformities and hydrology and . . . you get the picture.

    Drakon IV, the world where about half my stories (and my first novel) take place, is slightly larger than Earth. The Drakon system is much closer to the center of the Milky Way, so the night sky looks as if someone dropped the contents of a diamond mine onto a bolt of black velvet. It orbits a hotter star, but in a more distant orbit. The axial tilt is almost 35 degrees, making for very major seasonal changes and a broad intertropical convergence zone (ie. belt of stormy weather). The places my MC frequents are 1) a hunting estate on the eastern edge of a volcanic mountain range and 2) a city in the center of the northern landmass, on a plateau next to the continent’s major river. So aside from the seasonality, the nights (brighter than Earth), the colors of daylight, slightly higher gravity, and the fauna, it is familiar.

    However, on Drakon IV, I created a world where the reptiles won. The two dominant sapient species, one native and one that settled a small colony before the natives could object, are reptiles. Their domestic livestock consist of reptiles and birds. Their game animals are reptiles. The largest mammals are squirrel-like and rat-like creatures, and to be called “fur-bearing” is a deadly insult. In short, the landscape is familiar enough to keep readers grounded and different enough to catch them and keep them wondering what the next new discovery will be.

    1. I think your reptile world is a fascinating setting. From what you have described on the plot it looks to be a great story.

      Interesting I have the opposite experience in terms of growing up. I grew up in Brisbane’s hilly, suburban inner city, with lots of trees and parks – but generaly very ‘busy’ on the eye. You can’t see those long stretches around you. Visits to the local area usually featured sub-tropical rainforests and other open forests.

      So when I drove to my wife’s home city – which is about a 1000km inland – I drove through hundreds of kiometers of flat farmland. Wow – I found that experience unnerving in the extreme! I felt like I was as asprin tablet dissolving in the immensity that surrounded me.

      I haven’t considered a setting close to the galaxy core, although it would be interesting from the PoV of the closer stellar neighbourhood – the closest start system might be 0.4Lightyears instead of 4 LIghtyears!

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