The Writer's Travelogue: World-Building in the Smokies

I’m back from the great outdoors, and in addition to recharging my soul, I’ve refueled my imagination. Before I left for the Smokies, I knew I wanted to use my hiking time as an opportunity to get deeper into the head of one of my characters since her upbringing is in a similar region and really inspires her personality.

Those of you who read my last post know some of the insights I was hoping to discover, so here’s the post-trip report! Today, I’ll focus on the world-building elements and tomorrow I’ll tackle character details.


Wildflowers: My new favorites are mountain laurel, which is absolutely stunning when it hangs over rivers, bluets and rhododendron (which I always thought was some variation of goldenrod – silly me!)

Rivers: I love me a good mountain stream, and now I have a much better understanding of their width, depth and speed. I knew I didn’t want my world’s rivers to be on a scale with the Mississippi, but the creeks I’m familiar with in the Midwest are fairly shallow and slow-moving compared to those in the mountains.

Twice during the trip, I saw firsthand what happens to a river during rain and flash-flooding.

Got some great writing tools in this category! I’m excited to draw on what I experienced about river dynamics, boulders, rapids and log-crossings. It’ll be especially important for one scene in my WIP, and because the main border of my central nation is formed by a river.

Wildlife: I’m outdoors a lot, so I’m pretty familiar with the typical “woods wildlife.” In the Smokies, I saw a lot of those critters (Bear, deer, turkey, grouse) and also a few not-so-typical creatures that authors might overlook: Lizards, salamanders and swarms of little lavender butterflies.

Weather: The thing that surprised me most is that you truly cannot see storms over the mountains while you’re actually hiking in them. On a couple days, we could hear the thunder over a nearby peak, but it stayed sunny above us until the storm was suddenly THERE. The undergrowth is simply too thick to see the sky or predict weather. Hmm…could be an interesting predicament to throw at my characters!

Colors: Green! The vibrant, exotic green that makes everything look fresh, mixed in with darker piney shades and smoky blue-greens. I especially loved the bright green moss on all the rocks near the creeks. In most places, green undergrowth had replaced the brown fallen leaves of last autumn, but in some cases dead leaves were still visible ground-cover.

It also surprised me how black the bears were. When I scanned the forests for them, I expected them to appear like the darker brown of a decaying tree, but they’re REALLY dark — almost unnaturally so. It helped me pick them out because seeing that pure black in the woods made me stop and look closer.

The skies are either an incredibly crystal bright blue or a bluish haze. At sunset, there’s a riot of color wrapped within a muted impressionist haze.

Sights and sounds: I know from my time in the woods that you truly can hear every little sound in the early morning forest – yes, even a mouse scampering across leaves. Creeks also are constant, recognizable sounds. If you camp beside one, you’ll hear variations in its rippling whenever an animal (or person) crosses the stream during the night.

In the Smokies, night took forever to come, and it came as a nice gradual slip into darkness. When I was in Glacier (Rockies), night came instantly and early once the sun dropped behind the peaks.

That’s all for now. I’ll be back tomorrow with round 2.

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