I went to Poland for two weeks and one of the places I visited was Białowieża Forest. Now, here are some forest prompts and thoughts I had while exploring this unique location.
There is a whole range of forests out there. Białowieża is the oldest primeval forest, meaning that its growth has hardly been disturbed and with that comes a few unique ecological properties, like the fact that there are two dozen different “communities” throughout the nature reserve.
But this post isn’t about that. It’s about elements that can be brought to a page while writing any type of fiction. I’ll be focusing on fantasy specifically because that’s what I work on.
Sun streams from every break in the tree line. The air is also very different. It’s not close, but there’s a freshness about it. Granted, Białowieża is a largely undisturbed forest, to the point that people can only walk its paths with a guide.
Given that the past few summers have been a drought in Poland, the forest is eerily quiet. Usually, forests and woods like that have mosquitoes and other insects. But the mosquitoes were all gone. These woods also aren’t brimming with birds, so not a whole lot of chirping either. But that could be tied to them lacking a food source.
Footsteps were the only noise to be found. And that makes it easy to listen out for danger. The biggest threat to any traveler is the occasional falling branch or dead tree. According to our guide, the noise is unmistakable. Your body will figure out the source and react faster than your brain can register the event. It’s monumentally important to not stop directly under a dead tree since there is always a risk of injury.Therefore, don’t make your characters idiots, unless it’s a plot point.
I’m sure every fantasy author can go on for ages about religion. In cities, for examples, there can be a church, synagogue, temple, or other place of worship. In forests, the same can be true. The image I have is from a place near the tallest oak tree recorded in the forest.
But all throughout Poland, whenever there is a 3-way crossing, there is some form of a shrine to the virgin Mary. I wish I had more information about what that was all about. According to one source, these shrines were places where evil spirits were said to inhabit or former sites of horrific actions. But some have also been erected as a symbol of joy or miracle. Again, I wish I had more to tell you.
The glory of making up your own belief systems is that the reasons for shrines can be varied depending on the author. And there are so many fun and plot-driving questions you can ask yourself while building a forest scene.
Do your people worship tree spirits? Do they think demons inhabit them? Do many accidents occur without the protection of a divine hand? Are shrines simply road markers? Is there magic that can be tapped into? What happens if you disturb such a shrine? The possibilities are endless.
Finally, how do people get around your forest? There’s the road, but how old is it? Is it paved? Or is the forest floor full of water and so densely populated that a bridge or walkway had to be built? Białowieża has been visited by millions of people on set paths, therefore the road is pretty defined. But it may not be so in other places. In worlds where vehicular transport exists, asphalt plays a role.
One of the coolest things I saw was the way that tree roots created these callouses to protect themselves from hundreds of feet stepping on them daily for decades. These can present a hazard. The road I walked also isn’t the friendliest for running. Is this a concern for your characters? What if they are on horseback?
The final consideration are the types of people who serve as the woods’ population. Are there any outposts on the road? Or is it a hub of banditry? Or are they largely abandoned, save by those who have lived in the woods since the dawn of time?
I learned much about experiencing and visiting a primeval forest and I wanted to share my findings with you. What are places you’ve been to that have spurred world- and scene-building?
P.S.: For my next trick (entry), I’ll be covering castles. Tricks love castles.