It’s the fifth Friday of the month, and that means it’s time for a theory post!
This time I’d like to talk about one of the questions that constantly plagues me, which I shorthand as “when should I invent a tree?”
By that I mean, when should I describe a real tree (an oak, a pine, a gingko) versus making one up for my fictional world. Trees are of course not the only thing this applies to; writers also invent flowers, birds, weapons, musical instruments, types of alcohol, and so forth. For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to just say “trees,” with the understanding that it’s metonymy for the whole range of things you might or might not choose to make up.
I generally see three three common reasons why writers invent trees for their worlds. The first, and in my opinion the worst, is that the writer doesn’t actually know much about nature, and finds it easier to just make up names than to do the research. This has the virtue of protecting you against getting it wrong: if you call your tree whitebark, nobody can tell you that birches don’t grow in that kind of environment, or don’t get that big, or any other detail you might have screwed up. Or your invented tree has no analogue at all; it’s just a rannet, which could mean anything you want it to.
I consider this bad for a number of reasons, of which laziness is actually the least important. (Theoretically we shouldn’t be lazy, but let’s face it: inventing a whole world is a lot of work. Of course we’re going to cut corners where we can get away with it.) No, the real problem is that it often leaves the underlying problem untouched, which is that the writer knows bugger-all about nature, and therefore won’t really be integrating it with the story. If they sub in whitebark for birch, it’s probably because they need one feature — its paleness, or the fact that you can write on its bark — and the rest fall by the wayside. It’s even worse with our imaginary rannet tree, because what does that look like? It’s, uh, a tree. With leaves. If you’re lucky, the writer notes its “rough trunk” in passing. The characters wind up traveling through a landscape that might as well be a kid’s crayon drawing, where all the trees are generic brown sticks with green blobs on top. With the bonus issue that if the reader can identify a clear analogue, some of them will be annoyed that you didn’t just say “birch” when you meant birch. (This is known in science fiction as “calling a rabbit a smeerp.”)
The second reason you might invent trees is somewhat better, though it brings its own problems along. You may do it simply because you need the environment to feel alien rather than familiar, populated by strange flora and fauna. If you’re writing science fiction set on another planet, this is a necessary step to take; unless the planet has been terraformed with Earth species, it’s going to have its own kinds of tree (assuming it has trees at all). A secondary world fantasy isn’t required to do the same thing, but it can, for that added touch of distance.
Here’s the catch, though. If you’re going to make up trees, then my feeling is that you have to commit. Don’t give me rannet on one page and oaks on the next, unless there’s a good in-story reason for it (somebody write us a portal fantasy about invasive species!). Give me a properly estranging environment, or give me a familiar one, not half-and-half. And if you do this . . . then refer to my point above. For your rannets to feel real, I need to see in my mind’s eye what they look like, how tall they grow, how their leaves move in the wind. You can’t rely on your reader to fill in from their own personal experience, because they’ve never seen a rannet. And if you don’t provide those details, we’re back to the kid’s crayon drawing.
The third reason is the one I like best, but also in some ways it’s also the clunkiest: you might mix rannets with oaks in your secondary world because you need a tree with some feature that just doesn’t exist in nature. Maybe rannet leaves are purple, and you have a really powerful need for purple leaves in your story. Or maybe they have medicinal properties, like they’re natural antibiotics or hallucinogens. Or they can be dried, ground up, and used as contact explosives. (Don’t walk through a rannet grove in autumn . . .) Nothing in the real world will fit the bill, so you need to invent something.
This is clunky because it’s pretty obvious what you’re doing. I generally prefer to scour the internet looking for something real first, and resort to invention only if I have to; are there really no hallucinogens (tree-based or otherwise) which might plausibly grow in that environment? Does it have to be purple leaves, or could I use a flower instead? Etc. It’s more work, but it also means I get to leverage the recognition factor to make my description more vivid. Only if what I’m doing really just doesn’t work with real-world materials do I resort to making something up.
Mind you, I have a double standard here, which is that I’ll more readily accept invented things the more obviously supernatural they are. Make up a bird called a hopperwill just because you want something whose call sounds like “hop, hop, hop,” and I’ll give you the side-eye. Make up a bird called a gauri whose wings are made from slats of bone (as I did for “Calling Into Silence”) and I’ll nod and think that’s a cool bit of worldbuilding. (How does the gauri fly? It’s a supernatural creature, is how.)
So there’s no clear-cut line for when you should make up a tree (or a flower or a musical instrument or a type of booze) versus when you should use something from the real world. It depends on why you’re doing it, and whether the arguments in favor outweigh those against. But the one thing I can say with conviction is, think about why you’re doing it. Don’t just wander through your story sometimes borrowing and sometimes inventing without putting any thought into the choices you make. Broaden your mental horizons with some research — and then when you make something up, use what you learned from that research to make your creation feel as vivid and concrete as the real thing.