Why bother with biology?

Fiction or non-fiction, modern or historical, realistic settings or fantastical alien worlds, as writers we all face the challenge of fleshing out our scenes for readers.

Let’s start with an example.

For several hundred pages, your chosen hero has trekked across a continent, slain monsters and rescued townsfolk, uncovered prophecies and enemies. Now, the time has come. As the climax of the story approaches, your hero arrives at the mystical forest of destiny. How do we flesh out the scene? How can this stunning and foreshadowed set piece possibly live up to the hype? Before your hero plunges in, you (the author) may find yourself asking questions such as …

What types of trees loom over the path?

What ominous birds or bugs are calling in the distance?

What does the climate feel like?

What smells linger on the air?

What kind of antlers should you give to the ten-foot sabre-tooth moose lion about to ambush the party?

Source: Avatar The Last Airbender

For all these questions and more, a foundation in real-world biology can help you build a more living and breathing world on your pages — literally!

My goal for this blog is to provide some biology basics as they relate to creative writing, especially focusing on what details make both fictional and non-fictional worlds work from a scientific perspective. Whether you choose to abide by or shatter those rules is up to you as the author, but hopefully, you can do so in an informed fashion.

What are my qualifications?

I’ve been a professional biologist for over ten years. I have a B.S. in Natural Resources from Cornell University, where I studied animal behavior and population ecology, followed by a Ph.D. in Environmental Science from UC Berkeley, where my focus was spatial ecology, climate change, and running Bayesian multispecies occupancy models that literally made my computer unusable for upwards of twelve hours at a time. I currently teach at the University of La Verne and Caltech, where my course load includes topics such as intro bio, ecology, and science communication.

In case you weren’t aware, baby gulls are the cutest animals on Earth. Not in frame: the bicycle helmet preventing their parents from giving me a concussion.

I’m definitely not an expert on everything there is to know about biology, but I do possess an eclectic cubbyhole wall of random nature facts and the ability to track down reliable sources for whatever I don’t know.

What if you don’t want your book to be too ‘realistic’? It’s fantasy, after all!

Many of us love fantasy settings that shatter our expectations, because they show us wonders that could never occur in the real world. However, this isn’t an either-or scenario. Real-world biology has some pretty incredible stories of its own, not to mention about 1.2 million discovered species with a mind-boggling diversity of shapes, colors, behaviors, etc. Even if you’re committed to creating a vibrant and unique fantasy world from scratch, taking some inspiration from real biology can be a great starting point.

The Sage Grouse is definitely a real bird and definitely makes the strangest sounds you’ve heard today.
Photo: allaboutbirds.org

Does your mythical mount have hooves because it evolved to run from predators on an open plain? After all, the ancestors of horses had toes to walk around the squishy floor of their forest homes, and later descendants only developed hooves after moving onto harder terrain. Is your dragon scaled like an iguana? A crocodile? A green anole? Do your ferocious ice raptors have proper camouflage to allow them to stalk prey in their arctic environment?

Evolution of the modern horse, Equus, from its smaller, forest-dwelling ancestors.

Long story short, even mythical creatures are probably the product of some evolutionary, geographic, or magical history. Thinking through these details will give your world that extra layer of depth that keeps readers engaged and wanting to learn more.

Want to request a topic?

Please do! If there’s a topic in biology you’d like to see me tackle, post it in the comments below.

It should also go without saying, but each of these mini-lessons will seek to cover the biology basics. If you find a topic interesting to you, you’ll likely want to do some deeper research for your story. I merely hope to give you a starting point.

That being said, if you have any questions about a topic or a biology-related issue you’re working through in your book, please comment below, and I’ll do my best to reply!

Looking for more writing tips?

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