Follow the Water

Not every story is going to take place in a real-world location.


After all, what fun would that be?

Because it isn’t enough for most fiction writers to just come up with fictional people. A lot of us have the itch to invent fictional places, as well. Because we can.


They don’t have to be magical versions of medieval Europe or alien landscapes of a far-off world (but then, they don’t have to not be them, either). They can be ordinary places that simply never existed, like Gotham City or Middlemarch or Wyoming. They can exist inside of real countries, or belong to countries that are also fictional. Or, they can be part of an ever so subtly different alternative reality.


But no matter what kind of world you’re building, writers still call it “world building,” and if you’re going to go places as a writer, then it’s a necessary skill.

Too Much Information, Too Little Time

World building is, however, a topic so broad and complex that I cannot cover it in a single blog post, or even in a thousand blog posts. That is not my purpose here today.

Today, we are only going to discuss a starting point—something to dip our toes in to get a solid idea of where we go from here.

So, as a primer on all things to do with world building, we are going to discuss one of the biggest failures you can make when constructing your nonexistent places.


Utopia means “nowhere place,” as if to drive home the idea that it cannot be found in the real world.

What is this deadly sin that keeps your made up locations from having the heft of verisimilitude? Let’s call it “The City in the Desert.”

“The City in the Desert”—a Product of Poor Planning

Not every world you dream up is going to follow the same rules as our own. Science fiction and fantasy exist to open our minds to the impossible. But, as a famous author once said:

There is a rule for fantasy writers: The more truth you mix in with a lie, the stronger it becomes. -DIANE DUANE

The trick to creating a memorable fictional location is to make it seem real, and so, apart from whatever fantasy elements you are mixing in, you want to keep it as realistic as possible.

Which brings us to our big offender: the city in the desert.


A common trope of fantasy and science fiction, the city in the desert is appealing because it is exotic.

Picture it, surrounded by oceans of sand dunes in every direction. The traveler on the verge of death is about to lose all hope when suddenly he encounters the inexplicable city.

And “inexplicable” is the right word to describe it, because never in human history has anyone built a city in the middle of a desert*.

And keep in mind that this is coming from someone who grew up in a city that was once nothing but desert.


Salt Lake City in the early 1860s

Granted, there are many real cities that have been built adjacent to deserts, or in close proximity of a desert, or on the fertile land at the edge of a desert. But nobody puts one in the desert itself because all human civilization is based on the consumption of water.

It’s something you learned in your world history classes. Look at the cradle of civilization.


Ancient Mesopotamia was surrounded by arid and semi-arid zones, yet the cities were built right up against the rivers, in the one green spot that could be found in the area.

It was the same with ancient Egypt. People lived on the east side of the Nile, as close to the river as they could manage. The west side of the Nile was reserved for dead people, for whom the shortage of water was not an issue.

Even modern day “desert cities” such as Phoenix, Arizona are not built in the desert proper. Rather, they are built at intersections of rivers to provide the populace with as much water as can be got in such an area. Whenever possible, people will dam these rivers to turn as much desert as they can into a lake.

The central takeaway here is that even when cities are built near deserts, the people do everything in their power to push the desert far away.

So your Agrabahs and Mos Eisleys just aren’t realistic enough to stand up to scrutiny. They both come from good works of art, but those works excel despite their logic holes, not because of them.

The First Question You Should Ask

When building your imaginary civilization, the first thing you should ask yourself is, “Where do they get their water?”

It doesn’t have to be anything extraordinary…


…but it does have to make sense.

There are plenty of ways to research this subject on your own and come to your own conclusions. And, really, the decision is yours on how to get water to your fictional people. However, if you’re looking for a place to start, I have a few recommendations.

1. Rainwater


If your made-up community is lucky enough to live in a place where water falls from the sky for free, then rainwater may be a good option for them.

Pros: Allows you to explore weather patterns for your world and include them as part of the story. Can be the source of conflict (how do people react if the rain doesn’t come when it’s supposed to, etc.). Societies that depend on rain often have rain deities in their pantheon, and you can do interesting things with these.

Cons: Intermittent source of water at best. Few large cities can subsist entirely on rainwater. Constricts your setting to smaller settlements in tropical areas that see lots of rainfall (though not necessarily year round).

2. Rivers


Providing fresh water to mankind since the dawn of time. Rivers have a million different uses.

Pros: Not only provide a constant source of water to your fictional residents, but also serve as highways with which they can interact with other cities and countries. Allows for fishing as a source of food. Also works as a landmark and can be made as scenic as your imagination can handle.

Cons: Unoriginal and non-exotic. If people want to read about a river-fed city, then the real world has enough examples to satisfy anyone.

3. Wells and Springs


Groundwater has fed a number of civilizations over the years. How far it can go depends on the technological prowess of your people (aqueducts weren’t invented for nothing).

Pros: Allows you to move your civilizations away from low-altitude river valleys (the best groundwater comes from mountainous terrain). Provides a purer and healthier drink than can be got from a river. Wells are a great place to have people gather for story events. Springs can be concealed in caves, and caves make for beautiful an exotic locales where interesting plot points can happen.

Cons: Wells are complicated affairs, with their own potential dangers and pitfalls (literally), and you need a ton of them to support even a modest population. Natural springs require mountainous terrain somewhere nearby, unless you are ready to include the aforementioned aqueducts. Many of them feed into rivers anyway, which takes you back to option #2.

4. Glacial Melt


Glacial lakes and ice melt are an invaluable source of fresh water. And they can serve populations of any size, provided the glacier is big enough.

Pros: Exotic and imaginative. Allows for some amazing scenery (glacial lakes are beautiful by definition). Comes with free ice caves, fjords, and waterfalls that can make perfect backdrops for your story’s more dramatic scenes.

Cons: Confines your story to cold-weather climates. Also have to deal with the fact that glaciers grow, shrink, and move with time, and are thus calamitous to any civilizations that encroach too closely upon them.

5. Reclamation


Once it mixes with human waste or certain other substances, water becomes undrinkable, no matter how pure it was before contamination. However, through the miracle of water reclamation, it is possible to siphon out the good from the polluted, and in places where fresh water is a rare commodity, it may be the best means of survival.

Pros: Exotic and interesting. Useful for situations where water is hard to come by. Allows the story to explore the technological implications of your world.

Cons: Requires a certain level of technological advancement in order to be realistic. Confines your story to a landscape where none of the above modes of water gathering are available. Not necessarily unrealistic (reclamation of seawater, for example, is a hot topic in science today, and is already being accomplished with some success in countries like Israel, which have averted droughts this way), but not widespread in the real world.


Ultimately, no made-up civilization is ever going to be 100% accurate, scientifically, culturally, or historically. However, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t make an effort. Remembering the quote by Diane Duane above, we should be grateful to have the opportunity to infuse our fictional worlds with realism. It gives them a depth that helps the reader in his suspension of disbelief, and it keeps the author from making life too easy for his creations. Stories need conflict, after all, and natural conflict that fits the setting is the best kind. And it’s easier to do that if your world works in a logically consistent way.

Thanks for reading.

*Two exceptions: Petra and Las Vegas. But those are the only two.

[This week’s tagline: “Where people come…to wet their whistle.”]

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