Limyaael

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10:46 am: Life in a northern town
Yep, stole the song title.

Random Fact: Dante Gabriel Rossetti was so devoted to his wife Elizabeth Siddal that when she died, he buried a manuscript of his poems with her. However, several years later he wanted the poems back. He had to sneak into the graveyard at night, dig her up, and recover them.



1) Decide how much of a problem the cold is. What is your northern environment like? Pine woods that regularly get heavy snowfalls? Mountains with snow that stays all year-round? Tundra? Ice floes? (Those last two are very rare in fantasy; currently I'm trying to remember the last time I saw a tundra setting, and not recalling it).

Whatever you decide on will (or should) affect the way your characters think and feel about the cold. If it goes away when summer comes, or if they could escape it by moving downhill, then they must choose to live where they do. What makes the heavy winters or the height and the dangers of the mountains worth it? Is there game to be hunted or ore to be mined that's only available in those particular places?

If, on the other hand, you have a tundra, ice floe, or similar setting where the cold never goes away, the characters will have to adapt. You can take this to a "normal" extreme, by having them wear heavy furs and live on and with the ice, or by having them adapt so well that they don't have to wear clothes at all. There are a few human tribes like this, though not many. In such cases, the characters would probably suffer if forced to move into a desert environment.

The point: Acknowledge the cold. Don't take the usual fantasy course of only mentioning it when it's convenient and forgetting it the rest of the time.

2) Know how your people would eat and survive the winter. People in northern forests and mountains could have gardens, but only during the summer or on the lower slopes. The soil is likely to be much poorer than in the south, meaning that huge yields will be uncommon. Food would also have to be stored against the winter months, so fruit and vegetables that cannot be dried or otherwise preserved would be luxuries only. For most of their diet and survival, the people would rely on animals: goats for cheese and clothing, sheep (if they have them) for wool, the animals they hunted for meat, and, during harsh winters, whatever domestic animals they had for body warmth and close contact.

Tundra dwellers will live differently again. More of their diet will consist of meat from hunting. If they live near water, fish and seals are the most likely candidates. They may hunt whales, but such hunts take a long time, and if they live far away from everyone else there won't be a huge market in scrimshaw or ambergris. In summer, life will be easier as everything madly spawns and has young. The soil is even thinner and rockier than in a pine forest, and is unlikely to grow large crops that humans can eat. Clothing would come mostly from fur.

3) Transportation will not be so simple as in most fantasy environments. Thanks to the Amazing Mechanical Horses of most European-based fantasy, heroes don't have to worry about their mode of travel. Even if they break a leg, there always seem to be materials around to build a travois, and clear roads to carry it along. Rain and snow sometimes get mentioned, but don't slow them up a lot.

It's very, very different in a northern environment.

Horses have trouble in deep snow. Given most fantasy authors' tendencies to be dramatic and pile the snow up and up, or use blizzards, the problems will multiply. A horse floundering through snow is an exhausted horse, and if the hero runs into enemies, it won't be as able to help him fight or run. Some kinds of snow, such as that frozen with a glaze over the top, will be almost impossible to move in at all. The horse's hoof goes through with a crack, but then the leg stays there. The horse has to lift another leg and move it forward, then another, and then another. It's very slow progress, and chancy if this is the only horse your characters have to lose. Snowshoes are better transportation, though of course slower than horses.

Dog sledges will help in an environment that isn't mountainous, but again, the hero is limited to how fast dogs can run. He'll also have to keep food on hand for them, which is something heroes usually forget to do for the Amazing Mechanical Horses. (They can just graze, runs the idea). That means hunting or bringing along a large cache of dried fish and meat, which will take up room on the sledge. It will be different if there are waystations or inns along the way, but even those should be rarer than in the south unless the hero is running a well-known trail.

The point on this one: Horses can't go everywhere, not even the Amazing Mechanical Horses.

4) Predators will be more of a problem. For one thing, there's likely to be more of them. It's perfectly reasonable not to expect a wolf in the middle of a settled southern estate. It would be strange not to find them in forests with plenty of game, even if some humans live there. Since fantasy humans don't have guns, they lack the modern world's usual way of getting rid of wolves. The packs are unlikely to approach unless they're starving, but they will be competition for deer, moose, and elk in winter, and possibly take livestock that's not well-guarded enough.

For another, lean winters can drive animals to do things they might not otherwise. Taking livestock is probably going to be much more common than killing humans (unless you have evil or possessed beasts), but they will be braver and more desperate, less likely to run at the mere sight of a human.

And finally, many northern predators have advantages in that environment that humans don't. There are large ones to cope with. In a tundra or ice floe environment, there will be polar bears and killer whales. In a woods or mountains environment, there will be wolves, cougars, and possibly lynxes. They can all be dangerous if provoked, especially if they happen to be hunting the same prey as a human. And all of them can move more easily in conditions that would trap humans. The glazed snow I mentioned above, which horses have a hell of a time getting through, provides ground that a puma can just skate right over.

5) Expectations and beliefs are unlikely to be the same. For one thing, the characters will probably try to come to terms with the cycle of harsh winter followed by brief, furious spring, summer, and autumn, followed by harsh winter again (or six months of darkness if they dwell far enough north). Their religion might concentrate on this. Perhaps they believe the winter is a punishment for their sins. Perhaps they think of the winter as a powerful god. Perhaps they see the earth as ultimately inhospitable to them and not very loving.

They're unlikely to follow a carbon copy psuedo-Wiccan religion that celebrates all the Celtic holidays, though. Imbolc, which was traditionally the time the lambing began, would either have to mean something different in this type of environment or not matter at all.

The characters are probably also going to be better at survival, tougher, and more stoic. I'm always surprised when I encounter whiny teenage characters in a fantasy book that concentrates on the north. How do they have time to whine, given all the things they have to do simply to survive, and where did they get the beliefs (such as being entitled to silk sheets) that no one else around them seems to have? Northern communities will usually be isolated for a good part of the year, so it's a lot harder to propose that the character is simply influenced by a fairy tale from the south.

6) Avoid making the northerners the superior culture. As fun as I find fantasies set in northern environments, a lot of them have this distressing tendency. Southerners are depicted as soft, fat, weak, unable to do anything worthwhile (they have art and music, but those are not somehow worth the northerners' time), and often as slaveholders. And it's the narrative making the judgment most of the time, not just those characters raised on tundra or ice floe or mountain.

Try to show the flaws in both systems. While northerners may know much better how to survive in the wilderness, how to skin animals, and how to deal with the cold, they would probably be helpless in a jungle environment, and wouldn't know things that most southerners would take for granted, such as how to adjust to the violent changing of the seasons.



Study and research is necessary here, I think, if only because so many fantasy authors either don't live in cold environments or do so only in heated homes with modern facilities and no need to rely exclusively on hunting.

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Comments

From:(Anonymous)
Date:January 11th, 2008 02:26 pm (UTC)
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Let's put some things straight.

"Tundra? Ice floes? (Those last two are very rare in fantasy; currently I'm trying to remember the last time I saw a tundra setting, and not recalling it)."

For a good reason, if you meant "northern town" literally! Tundra cannot produce enough food for a town, or hardly any settlement. People living on tundra will be nomadic hunter-gatherers or reindeer herders, unless we are talking about recent times with the technology and connections to import food.
There have been some American Indians who had permanent settlements without agriculture, such as the Kwakiutls, but they did not live on tundras, but in northern forests that were exceptionally rich in fish and/or edible seeds.

"What makes the heavy winters or the height and the dangers of the mountains worth it? Is there game to be hunted or ore to be mined that's only available in those particular places?"

Or are the warmer places already populated by someone else? ;) Probably the top one reason for anybody to live in a difficult environment.
Of course, this still won't be an excuse for a whole town to appear.

"The soil is likely to be much poorer than in the south, meaning that huge yields will be uncommon."

No, the biggest problem is that the growing season is too short for some crops to ripen. In northern habitats, rye and potato will be better choices than wheat, because they require a shorter growing season. Lean years, even starvation, will be a common occurence.

"For most of their diet and survival, the people would rely on animals..."

This would be true about reindeer herders, but otherwise, no. There aren't cattle or sheep pastoralists in the far north. People rely mostly on agriculture if it's possible at all, which is why crop failure is such a disaster. If agriculture isn't possible, they won't have sheep, goats, or cattle, either - see my first point.

"Horses have trouble in deep snow."

Yes but no. Moving in snow will be tiring for the horse, but on the other hand, pulling the load will be much, much easier. Before there were good roads, winter was the best time to move heavy things, if you couldn't take the water route. (Wood-cutting, for instance, was done in winter partly for this reason - the other reason being that there was no work to be done on the fields in winter.)
But yes, if you have nothing heavier to move than a traveling fantasy hero, then snow would be a hinder. Traveling on a riding horse in wintertime makes little sense. Skiing or sledges with reindeer or dogs make more sense.

"Some kinds of snow, such as that frozen with a glaze over the top, will be almost impossible to move in at all."

Not at all impossible, just somewhat more tiring. Also, when the glazing gets thick enough to carry a horse, it is the most ideal thinkable route next to an asfalt road.

"He'll also have to keep food on hand for them, which is something heroes usually forget to do for the Amazing Mechanical Horses. (They can just graze, runs the idea)."

Which they can't even do through snow - reindeer can, though. *Big mean snort to the authors of Amazing Mechanical Horses*

"The packs are unlikely to approach unless they're starving..."

If we're talking about sparsely populated areas, the wolves will also be less afraid of humans (due to being less hunted) and more likely to attack them, especially if they're in a pack and the human in question is alone.

Will be continued...
From:(Anonymous)
Date:January 11th, 2008 02:27 pm (UTC)
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"They're unlikely to follow a carbon copy psuedo-Wiccan religion that celebrates all the Celtic holidays, though."

Word, and they won't believe in a hell where it's hot.
In northern Europe, the traditional important holidays have been midsummer, midwinter and the time of harvest. A fictional culture doesn't need to, and shouldn't, be a carbon copy of that either, of course. But celebrating the harvest makes very much sense when the winter is long; harvest is the only time when you really have food to party.

"How do they have time to whine, given all the things they have to do simply to survive, and where did they get the beliefs (such as being entitled to silk sheets) that no one else around them seems to have?"

On the other hand, harsher conditions may mean smaller population may mean less complicated social structure may mean a *less* harsh life for the lowest classes. I realize it's not as straightforward as that, but if you look at the history of Europe, serfdom never existed in many of the northernmost regions. The free peasants there may well have had more time to whine than the serfs further in south.

"Avoid making the northerners the superior culture."

Please do.
From:[info]drashizu.livejournal.com
Date:June 25th, 2011 09:48 pm (UTC)

"Northern" weather

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I agree with this; people need to learn more about the weather of a place before sticking characters there. Even published authors do it. (I once saw, in a published book, a pumpkin growing where there was frost on the ground. Uh, no. Those things die if you touch them, practically. They hate anything below 50*F.)

But I just wanted to add some things about another form of climate characterization that bothers me, and it's no criticism to Limyaael, since the genre is full of this and she's commenting on the genre: "north" equals cold and "south" equals hot.

Putting aside the issue of which hemisphere you're in... Annual sunlight, determined by latitude, is only one ingredient that goes into determining a locale's temperature, and temperature is only one ingredient of climate. Moisture, air saturation, is a very important consideration in both instances. Water changes temperature more slowly than land or dry air; a wet place will have cooler summer and warmer winter than a dry place. Know how deserts are burning hot during the day but cold at night? That's because they're so dry. It's the same elsewhere, too.

This also involves the issue of what can grow there, as the comment above pointed out, but I disagree on some points. Since people who live in a Medieval English-type climate don't generally strike me as living in "harsh" conditions (they wouldn't be better hunters, or have to learn how to adapt to extreme cold, or sneer at "those weakling southerners"), I think that means Limyaael is talking about places that are REALLY cold. And anywhere that rains enough to get pine forests is going to be able to support crops of one kind or another, so I'll ignore those, because they've already been covered.

I'm talking about dry-cold. Not just places that get some snow in the winter, like the aforementioned British Isles, the low countries, or the temperate coastal areas of Scandinavia. Because of the mediating effect of large bodies of water and low pressure systems bringing moist air onshore almost constantly, those regions have very mild winters.

That is, compared to places in, say, Siberia or central Canada at the exact same latitudes. Those places, far from large bodies of water and onshore moisture transference, suffer from much more drastic shifts of day/night and summer/winter temperatures. They actually get less snow than you'd think, since the air that circulates over these vast land areas is generally bone dry; it might rain anywhere from desert-levels, in which case you have tundra, to 30 inches or so, in which case you have taiga or steppes. What rain and fog occur are generally in the summer, making that the only even marginally humid time of year. It might reach 80 degrees Fahrenheit in such places in the summer, but it can easily drop to -60*F in the winter. And winter lasts almost half the year; spring and autumn are fleeting transitional phases, and summer is short.

So yes, the growing season is brief and you would have to rely on early-harvest plants, rye being a good example. (Although actually most farmers plant rye in the preceding fall and let it grow throughout the winter, since cold won't kill it, and only THEN is it ready to be harvested by mid-summer). But still, Limyaael is right in saying the soil isn't very good in those places. They get so little rainfall it tends to be sandy and not very nutritious for the plants. So the plants might grow, and rye might even grow easily, but crop yields will nevertheless be tiny. Places that have such short growing seasons, and don't get rain because of the inland high pressure covering these areas, won't have big yields no matter how hard you try (unless magic comes into the equation). It's very hard to supply an entire settlement with grain year-round, in those conditions.

People are likely to live in smaller communities AND they're more likely to rely on animals for their food. Not domesticated animals. Those would just take up more of the humans' food. They'll rely on hunting, especially in winter, and they might resemble agriculturalists for half the year, but, aside from what grain they can store, they'll look a lot like subsistence foragers for the other half of the year. Just like the indigenous peoples of Canada and Siberia.

...
From:[info]drashizu.livejournal.com
Date:June 25th, 2011 09:49 pm (UTC)

"Northern" weather continued

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THOSE will be the people who get to be good hunters, and know how to survive harsh climates, and maybe have a reason to consider themselves superior to people for whom agriculture is a reliable food source: not just "southern" people, but people at the same latitude who live closer to oceans and have moist ocean breezes, get good rainfall, and have less drastic seasonal patterns.

Also, I'm not sure what Limyaael meant when she said that southerners would be able to adjust to "violent changing of the seasons." Tropical wet forests get rain pretty much year-round; tropical dry forests, the kind that form mosaics with savannas, have a short winter when it's a bit cooler and doesn't rain, but they're still tropical, and it's still easily 70 or 80 degrees during the day there. Savannas themselves are boilers year-round... but I guess you could consider the monsoon rains "violent" changes. It should be noted, though, that monsoons have very little wind. The rain almost inevitably falls straight down in perfectly vertical lines. So please, nobody describe monsoon rains as "driving."
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