Last week, I sat on my bed writing some completely new scenes to Resilience. These are essentially first drafts, and yet I sat there with two reference books, google and twitter open. Despite the fact that I tend to whiz through my first drafts, focusing on getting the story down, this time I spent over an hour trying to work out what trees could all share the same soil in a wood.
I asked on Twitter and Facebook, looked up the list of trees in my Pocket Guide to Trees, and flicked through the RSPB children’s guide to wildlife. But it seems there are few places where you can pick a soil type/habitat and then find a resource to tell you what other things should be there.
I knew my character doesn’t know much about trees, so silver birches were a good choice to comment on – the only common tree with a white trunk at least that I know of, in England. It’s distinctive and so I wanted to use it to improve my description of the woods.
Then I knew I needed a Yew tree in the same woodland; it’s a big part of the plot. As it turned out, I managed to match a dry, light soil type to a couple of trees, and then matched this information to habitat type: heathland. This allowed me to look up that environment, and to include bushes and creatures that would be naturally found nearby.
It all made sense, until I went to put a “cave” near the woods. Most British heathlands don’t have a massive cliff in the middle of them. This kind of left me with one option that made sense: a heath on top of a cliff overlooking the ocean. Which would make the dry soil difficult to balance. Here, everything fell apart; for about twenty minutes.
And then I remembered that there’s a balance between knowing your landscape and getting the story down in a first draft. Brandon Sanderson says to check facts in his books (particularly guns, in his case), he’ll let an expert in the field read a later draft to check the facts. This means I really don’t need to spend four hours working out how a cave can be near a yew tree next to some silver birches. I can just write it in, and trust an expert to tell me where it breaches common knowledge.
So I’ve shoved a cave into the side of a hill. and made a note to “check this properly later”. Because knowing the landscape isn’t something I can complete in the first draft, while I’m still figuring out the plot and developing my characters. It’s important, but it’s not going to make a story by itself.