Writing lessons from a week in Costa Rica

Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve

Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, Costa Rica

I recently returned from a vacation with my family in Costa Rica. While the trip contained plenty of beach time, it also included a walk through the cloud forest that got me thinking a lot about setting and worldbuilding. (Yes, cloud forests are a thing, distinct from rain forests and the types of forests we see in the U.S. (Dry forests?) No, I was not aware of this fact until the guide told us that Monteverde is a cloud forest.)

In the cloud forest, we saw hundreds of different species of plants. This would have been cool by itself, but the really amazing thing was the way those plants interacted with each other. In their fight for a scarce resource (sunlight), several types of plants adapted to grow on the trunks or branches of other trees, their roots stretching hundreds of feet to reach the ground. There was a type of tree that did not tolerate these freeloaders, and shed its bark whenever anything tried to grow on it. There were plants on top of plants on top of plants.

What does all this have to do with worldbuilding? It got me thinking not only about the fauna of the fantasy world of my current WIP, but also more broadly about these types of cooperative and competitive relationships. What resources are available in one part of this world versus another? Do people trade to get those resources, fight for/steal them, or adapt to live without them? How do the experiences of a character who grew up working on the wheat farms that were constantly raided by a neighboring kingdom differ from those of a character who grew up eating plants and game from the forest on the other side of the kingdom? What expressions, mannerisms, and superstitions would these characters have developed? How would that impact the way they view their government, and what they would like from their government?

It’s easy to forget how much our environment affects us when we’ve become accustomed to our routines. Stepping out of my everyday world was a good reminder of all the ways settings impact characters, their goals, and the conflicts they encounter.

What questions do you ask yourself when crafting a new world? Do you come up with the setting first, or build a world that fits your characters and plot?

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