Monthly Archives: March 2015

The city of Florence's urban center looks much as it did 500 years ago.
The city of Florence's urban center looks much as it did 500 years ago.

I love a good city for a fantasy setting. I love cities so much some of my favorite books (City of Stairs, The City & The City) have the word smack dab in the title. In one of my favorite short stories, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, the city is the primary, and arguably the only, character. Cities feature prominently in most of my own work and, even when they’re in the background, their existence is exuding subtle pressure on both character and plot.

Based on my notes for my panel on City as Character at FOGcon5, I’ve put together a list of questions below to help you create a city that has as much personality, history, and richness as your protagonists.


City Building Basics

Why was your city founded?

Most Earth cities sprung to life centuries ago along ancient trade routes. Large, calm rivers are popular locations. As are deltas, sheltered harbors, and near proximity to mountain passes. Consider where your city is going to get its food and water; fertile floodplains, fishing waters, and freshwater springs/rivers are good starters. A location that is easily defensible is also desirable in the early years of a city’s life - whether it be from bandits or inclement weather.

If your city came into being later in the life of your world, it may be due to a proximity to a holy relic, or a natural attraction of some kind.

What are the local building materials?

Early on in the life of a city it’s usually too expensive to import building materials so, budding cities make use of what’s around them - whether it be stone, wood, mudbrick or grass. As most stories take place in a city’s later years of life, consider what impact these early materials might have on the socioeconomic structure of your present-day citizens. If wood were plentiful in the early days, and marble scarce or otherwise difficult to obtain, then wouldn’t your wealthy residents boast homes of stone over their tree-dwelling neighbors? Or, perhaps it’s the other way around. If quarries are easy to come by, then finely wrought homes of rare woods would become the height of fashion.

And what about your government buildings, and temples? Consider permanence and gravitas when you’re assigning building materials. A bank made of tarp and tentpoles probably wouldn’t inspire a lot of confidence. On the other hand, coming up with a neat cultural reason for impermanence to be inherent in your culture’s government structure might be a fun track to take. Regardless, make certain your buildings fit your people and the land around them.


Has it existed uninterrupted?

Really good places to stick a city aren’t as common as you might initially think, and as such the best locales have a tendency to be inhabited continuously - no matter the rise and fall of the peoples who dwell within them. If your people aren’t the first to inhabit their city, then what of the people who came before? Is your current culture aware of their past neighbors, or clueless? How long has it been since your people have taken over, and what caused the downfall of the previous civilization? Do ruins abound, or is the only trace of the previous people in the layout of the streets? Your characters’ degree of awareness of these past people will add depth and personality to your city.

Consider the possibility of more than one layer of civilization. Rome, for example, has roads that follow ancient goat tracks and ruins of the Roman golden age both.

If your city’s roots are ancient, chances are good your city was destroyed at one point. Whether it be to fire, flood, earthquake, or good ol’ fashioned razing, no city escapes destruction over a long enough timeline. What happened to your city after its first downfall? Did plague make it a multigenerational ghost town, or did a massive fire wipe the slate clean to allow more modern construction? What folktales do your citizens tell themselves about that destructive event?


Delving Deeper

Any Description of a City Inherently Contains Its Past

Is King’s Square called that because the monarchy was crowned there, or beheaded? Are certain locales within the city considered rife with political unease due to their pasts? Where would the protestors of your city congregate to make their message heard?

The stories people tell themselves about the cities they live in lend it character - here a king was hanged, there a lover threw himself from a bridge, etc.


Art & Architecture

A city’s skyline is arguably its most iconic structure. It’s what travelers see from afar, and the first impression for any visitor. How close your buildings sit next to one another, how stratified your class divisions are, and how neat (or tangled) the layout of a city’s streets are imposes an immediate mood upon the visitor depending on their own inclinations. A high mountain city, with many-storied buildings in tight rows, might inspire claustrophobia in someone used to the plains, and comfort in someone used to close quarters. When describing your city’s vista, never forget to color its impression through the eyes of the viewer.

Once we’re into the city’s streets, you can show a lot about a city’s residents by their decorative flair - or lack thereof. Are temples elaborate things, meant to inspire godlike visions? Or are they austere and humble, paying homage to the citizen’s sense of sobriety surrounding their religion? How about the homes - what art is on display here? Is portraiture common, or perhaps family allegiances are honored by great murals of entwined family sigils?

Are the statues in the public spaces of heroes, gods, nobility? Are folktales present in the local art? What mediums are popular? How about music and dancing? Are music halls celebrated, or crass? Is only a certain type of music and dance considered the “right” type? And, if so, where can one find the “wrong” type?



Without digging too deep into economics (we could be here all day and probably still get it wrong), whatever your city’s major and minor trades are will heavily affect the flavor of your city. Industry, for example, is often loud, smelly, and segregated into its own district. Is your city on the cutting edge of in-world technology? If so, it probably has a fast-paced feel - and is more than likely full of people trying to hustle their way to the top of the pack.

If your city is a cultural beacon, summoning tourists from across the world, then there’s going to be a heavy focus on conservation, appearance, and infrastructure. You don’t want your tourists arriving after a long journey only to discover the streets are too narrow for their horse-cart and all the inns are full.


Family Matters

How do family units, whatever they may be, live in your city? Do children leave the ancestral home as soon as they are able to enter the workforce, or do multiple generations inhabit the same building? How much personal space is allotted to each member of the household? Consider how your family units might handle an ill loved one, or guests coming to stay the night. What are the rules of hospitality - and what are the social consequences of violating those rules? Cities are, usually, high density living situations and space is often at a premium. Is the way the city is constructed impinging on your character’s sense of how family units should be structured?

The way these things are handled often affects the way personal space is viewed within a city, as well. Consider how your people would, or wouldn’t, line up to gain entrance to an event. Are they comfortable crowding together, or is getting too close a faux pas?



In a sufficiently large city, cultural subdivision is inevitable. You can breath life into your city by making your characters keenly aware of these self-imposed boundaries. Where’s your bohemian district, your red light? Where do the merchants congregate, and where do the nobility live? Unless your culture exists within an utopia, there’s always a dangerous neighborhood to be avoided - and an unfashionable one to be gossiped about. Consider, too, just how cohesive residents of these neighborhoods appear to be. Would someone who spends their days in your artists’ district stick out like a sore thumb in the merchant’s quarters?


Social Dynamics

Who can talk to who, and under what pretenses? Is your city cosmopolitan and free-flowing, or is it buttressed by a system of etiquette? What happens when someone screws up that etiquette? Most cities have an unspoken set of social rules that lubricate personal dealings, and when those rules are violated - even accidentally - the person who perceives the violation is often jarred and wrong-footed by the interaction. These rules are often codified with gestures, salutations, and sometimes even different methods of speech.



How people get around your city is actually a pretty huge deal. Whether it be on foot, by horse, or steam-powered skateboard, transportation affects how far people can go within the city, and in some cases who can access certain areas. Consider sidewalks, what the streets are made of, and how steep the grade on the streets is.


These are just some broad topics to get you started, and I may come back and delve into each a little more deeply in the future - there’s heaps to cover under each category. If you have a neat city feature you’d like to share, or a method you use to make your city feel real, then please do mention it!

March Mid-Month Round-Up
A bench at Heather Farms park in Walnut Creek, California.


My book plan for book two of The Scorched Continent Series is coming along nicely. The outline is firmed up, and I'm just about to begin digging into the draft. Corollary to this, I've been adding pretty pictures to my Scorched Continent pinterest as the visual fuel keeps me inspired and my mindset immersed in-world.

Random cool thing: I've discovered I have my own listing on the Internet Speculative Fiction Database.

I've begun the Writing Guides series with a closer look at fragrance-related cliches, and have more posts in the Worldbuilding series forthcoming.

My short story, Of Blood and Brine, which went live in January at Shimmer has received a recommended review from Lois Tilton!


As usual, I've been adding evocative images to my Story Inspiration board over on pinterest. But this month it's research into the Belle Époque that has really captured my interest - so much so that it inspired its own board. A short story is in the works based on the mood of this lovely era, and of course it's loaded with perfume-related-goodness.

If you're looking for some fresh inspiration, The British Library has a photostream that is full of interesting images. Or how about this list of legendary creatures by type?

A Story Recommendation

Sugar Showpiece Universe by Caroline M. Yoachim is a great little flash story about an intergalactic pastry competition.


Delicious Cliches - photo by PDPics on Pixabay
Delicious Cliches - photo by PDPics on Pixabay

Inserting all of the senses into your fiction is a must for creating real, solid worlds for your characters to inhabit. Most writers start off having the visuals down pat, and sound is usually a close second. Temperature, taste, and smell soon find their way into descriptions. And when these descriptions are firing on all cylinders they act not only as a portrait of the character experiencing them, but as a windowpane into the world you’ve created.

The only trouble is that, as a perfumer, I notice more often than not that scent descriptions fall flat, or veer into the cliche. As smell is inherently tied to memory, it’s important to keep in mind that how your character reacts to certain aromas says a lot about them. Don’t waste that opportunity by falling back on having the scent of chocolate chip cookies remind someone of mom, or home. You can do better. You can dig deeper.

Maybe mom only made those cookies after a really rough fight with dad, and the scent makes your protag anxious/queasy. You get the idea.

If you’re not into outright subverting tropes (it can be argued that textual awareness of tropes might break immersion for some readers), then you’re going to want to avoid them altogether. While most of us are aware that phrases such as emerald green eyes and flame red hair cross the line into trite, scent descriptions aren’t always as obvious. So, here you go, a list of the most common scent cliches I’ve noticed, why they’re problematic, and suggestions to spruce them up.


Fresh Baked Bread

This one has become writer-shorthand for “homey” or “comforting”. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it, but like the cookies it doesn’t tell us anything about the world, or the character experiencing it. In a fantasy novel, either we’ve just walked into an inn, or a character’s ancestral home. Usually on a farmstead. Often there’s a hearty stew involved, and maybe some ale. You get the picture, because you’ve seen it before. A lot.

The key to avoiding the cliche here, which is going to be true for the rest of these, is to drill down into what information you’re trying to convey to the reader. If your inn is a tumble-down dive bar full of cutthroats, then the warmth of bread isn’t going to convey the right message. But if the inn truly is a safe haven for your character, then focus on something a little more personal to the character. Perhaps the scent of the wax on the bartop, if he used to work in a similar establishment. Or the comforting aroma of real oil lamps after a harried adventure on the road.

If you really must have bread, use it show us a little about the culture. Maybe your protag is surprised that they’re making yeasty bread on a holy day. Perhaps the region’s primary trade good is walnuts, and the locals use it in everything. Oh, and your character is allergic, of course.



Normally I wouldn’t call this one out, I like a good spicy aroma note as much as the next nose, but I’ve seen a persistent shift away from cinnamon to cardamom in the last two or three years, and more often than not it’s being used as shorthand for exoticism, which is problematic.

I love a good spice-heavy scene - the curry-cooking in City of Stairs was brilliant - but when you break out the spice jars, take a moment to think about what connotations those spices might carry and if you could use them to layer meaning. Salt is an obvious one, but did you know some cultures consider cardamom an aphrodisiac? Consider, also, what it takes to get the spices your characters are throwing around. If you’ve got a poor person munching on cinnamon cakes in ancient Greece, I’m going to wonder how he got his hands on something so exorbitantly expensive.

But really, I’m just a little tired about everything in fantasy-land smelling of cardamom. Anise, anyone? How about some basil?


The Sea/Ocean

Ahhh, the smell of the sea. Brine, sand, maybe a little seaweed, and that’s about it, usually. Aside from slight variation between tropical and northern shores, most descriptions of the sea and its larger cousin are interchangeable, forgettable. Maybe a writer will break with romanticism for a moment to point out the green sulphur stink of the copious bacteria munching on dying plankton (if you’re unfamiliar with the reek of dimethyl sulfide, visit a salt marsh - you’ll never forget it). But, for the most part, we get brine and maybe a titch of driftwood.

The reality is that any body of water’s aroma is directly tied to the ecosystem living in and around it. Water doesn’t smell of anything. And what does give it its smell is, frankly, kinda’ gross. Whether it’s the bacteria munching on plankton, or the sexy-time chemicals exuded by seaweed, the sea smells the way it does because it’s supporting a vast array of life.

So, how do you make your stinky beach unique? Pull out your scene-camera, and look at what’s surrounding your ocean. If you’re on a beach anywhere near San Francisco, for instance, your air is going to smell strongly of eucalyptus. Examine your local flora and fauna, then extrapolate from there. Don’t lose sight of your character when you do this. If your protag is scared of the kraken, he’s probably not going to be picking up on ‘nice’ smells.


Matriarchs Smell of Flowers

Ageism abounds in the world of fragrance. Children smell of sticky jam, preteens smack strawberry-scented lips, and old ladies douse themselves in lilac and powder. When you’re perfuming your matriarch, sidestep the stereotypes and consider who she is and how she grew up. An avid gardener might be prone to smelling of soil and herbs, while a hobbyist woodworker might smell of cedar, etc..

If you’re set on flower imagery, then consider consulting the Victorian language of flowers to add meaning to the bloom picked. Just be sure to google it to make sure it’s a flower than can be distilled into an essential oil, if your society exists before the invention of aldehydes. Or, better yet, dig into your secondary world and find something meaningful to the cultures you’ve created.

But, if you are writing a historical, be very careful of the perfume conventions of the time period. For example, pre-Chanel No. 5, no proper European or American lady would be caught wearing jasmine, or any white floral.


Sexy Dude Cologne

Usually described only as “expensive”, this one is right up there in the cliche department next to the chocolate chip cookies. Sometimes the sexy dude is even baking the cookies, and then we’ve gone and jumped the shark. In a briny ocean. Ahem, excuse me.

The problem with labeling a man’s cologne as “expensive” and then just moving along is that it’s a missed opportunity. You could tell us a little about the man, and his preferences, by the scent-family of the cologne he wears. I don’t mean that your character has to have a super sniffer. I’m not expecting your protag to take a whiff and say, “Hmm, yes, seaweed fleuressence with a dash of adoxal and ambroxan cetalox for grounding.” But they can at least nail one of the major family groups men’s cologne tend to fall into: musk, spice, citrus, wood, amber, aquatic, green. Those are super general in perfume-land, but they’re a whole lot more telling than “expensive”. Bonus points if your protag can pick out a fragrance note that means something to them personally


Bitter Almonds

This is a strangely common one on the mystery novel scene. Bitter almonds contain quite a lot of cyanide, which means that cyanide poisoning can very rarely be detected by the poisoned person’s breath smelling of bitter almonds.

But there’s a problem. Bitter almonds smell nothing like their cousins, sweet almonds, which we are all familiar with. In fact, the chemical that gives sweet almonds their aroma is more likely to be confused for cherries than cyanide. Unless your character has unique knowledge of cyanide, or bitter almonds, then I’d just avoid the cyanide-sniffing entirely.



I’ve saved, in my opinion, the most egregious cliche for last. Everything that smells is a chemical. Everything. So when I’m reading along with a lush, beautiful story and the protag is approaching a strange, creepy marsh, and then you tell me it smells of chemicals I want to weep. Tell me it smells of petrol, or melting plastic. Give me the sulphurous reek of a salt-marsh, for crying out loud, but if you want to make something smell bad then don’t cop out and say it smells of chemicals. Ack.

I’ll, uh, step off of my soapbox now. If you have a fragrance cliche pet-peeve, please do leave it in the comments.