Posted by: kshayes513 | July 13, 2009

The Traveling Worldbuilder, part 1: the Ozark Plateau

I recommend travel of all kinds for worldbuilders. Anything you can do to break out of your everyday routine is bound to shake up your assumptions about what’s “normal”, and get you thinking about some fresh aspect of your imaginary world.

I’ve been away in central Missouri for my son’s graduation from Basic Training. This gave me exposure to several new environments:

My first trip to this part of the country, the most expansive rural geography I’ve ever encountered. I live in what I think of as a small town, but it’s a metropolis compared to  St. Robert, MO.  As I drove west out of St. Louis, I first saw suburbs scattered over long, rolling, forested hills. Then almost as if I’d crossed a line on the map, the scenery changed from definitely suburban to definitely rural. Towns small and far apart and well away from the highway, which was lined only by woods, farmlands and weatherworn billboards advertising tiny roadside attractions, local motels and taverns, adult stores, and Jesus.

Yes, if you want to build a realistic world, look for those unintended and ironic juxtapositions. Real worlds are not neat and logical.

Ozark limestone. In my travels, I only saw cliffs like these alongside rivers and creeks. Photo: Tom Uhlenbrock, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Ozark limestone. In my travels, I only saw cliffs like these alongside rivers and creeks. Photo: Tom Uhlenbrock, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Farther out, the Ozark plateau, which apparently takes up much of the state. I never did figure out exactly where I crossed onto the plateau, only knew I was on it when I began to see deep valleys cut into the landscape with cliffs of  blocklike tan stone.

In New England, especially interior New England, towns and highways mostly cluster in the valleys, following the rivers and lakes. Suburban sprawl only gradually climbs up toward the hills as the lowlands get filled up. On the Ozark plateau, it’s the opposite. The good livable farmland is all up high, so all the towns and the highways seem to stay up on the plateau;a local told me the valleys are too steep and narrow for farming (except for goats, apparently). Also, I suspect, the valleys might become unbearably stuffy in the summer heat, being down out of the wind.

Where in the landscape of your world do people live, and why? and how does that choice affect their daily life?

That tantalizing view is just more flat plateau. Photo: Conor Watkins. At least he found some foreground trees to give the view some interest!

That tantalizing view is just more flat plateau. Photo: Conor Watkins. At least he found some foreground trees to give the view some interest!

As I drove around the plateau, I kept glimpsing blue distances through the trees. In New England, you only see those distances from relatively high places, soI felt all the time as if I were on top of a ridge or mountain. I kept slowing down to look for the kind of grand view I’d get at home from a high place; but in the Ozarks, almost everything is high places, so the only view is the next flat, forested expanse of plateau. The only really remarkable feature is the cliffs cut by the rivers into that block shaped tan rock, and even those only push out through the trees here and there.

Notice the effects that a strange landscape has on you. Uprooted characters might have some of the same symptoms.

Strangest of all, something about this landscape was completely disorienting.  I and my son’s father both have an excellent sense of direction even in strange places; we’ve traveled all over this country and in several others and even if we have made a wrong turn, we never have trouble  figuring out which way to turn to get right again.

On the plateau, our internal compasses just didn’t work. Each of us got turned around two or three times, in daylight with the sun clear in the sky to orient us. We’d make a left turn when we should have gone right, or turn east instead of west on the Interstate and go for several minutes before realizing the mistake. No direction ever felt completely right or wrong. I’ve never had an experience like it.

So what happens when your wandering characters get out into an unfamiliar landscape?


  1. Just discovered this post, and your great site. As a native Ozarker, I can tell you about a few other places in the Ozarks worth a visit by an aspiring worldbuilder:

    * Any of the Ozarks’ caves, like Blanchard Springs Caverns near Mountain View, AR, or Marvel Cave near Branson, MO. The Ozarks’ karst topography is a hydrological Swiss cheese, with interconnected caverns, sinkholes, springs, and disappearing creeks. You could hide anything down there: cities, alien artifacts, lost tribes.

    * The impact craters of the northern Ozarks, not far from Ft. Leonard Wood, where I assume your son was stationed. There are 3-mile-wide craters at Decaturville and Crooked Creek, and a 12-mile-wide (!) crater near Weaubleau and Osceola. The craters aren’t well-dated, but they might be part of a Shoemaker Levy-style train of impacts. The meteors — or comet fragments, or asteroid-sized starships — fell into what was then a shallow sea. Imagine being caught in a boiling shower of molten rock “raindrops” only to be cooled off by the mother of all tsunamis.

    * The St. Francois Mountains, a 1.4-billion-year-old volcanic range in southeast Missouri that was caught up in the much later Ozark uplift. There are ancient Indian diggings and more recent French mines in the area, and a couple of small towns like 270-year-old Old Mines (Les Vieilles Mines) where a few elderly people still remember speaking French. Settlers who came to an isolated place to mine strategically important minerals for their empire, who were then forgotten and left behind…

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