Weekly Writing Prompt: The Rheic

Haujuapan de Leon is known in Mixtec as Ñuu dee, which means the “Place of Brave People.” The valley in which Haujuapan sits was settled by humans more two thousand years ago, beginning with the Ñuu Yate, the “Ancient Ones,” as early as 400 BCE. Today, this city in southern Mexico is home to about fifty thousand people.

Something was found hidden in the mountains not far from Haujaupan de Leon that is forcing us to reconsider some ideas that many thought were set in stone. So what was was uncovered near Ñuu dee and what does it have to do with this week’s prompt?

She narrowed her eyes against the sun as she looked off into the distance. Other visitors moved around her, but she paid them no attention. Her focus was on the mountains. They stretched on for kilometers until they were lost to the thick haze of humidity, which hung like blue smoke over peaks and ridges reaching to the horizon.

Standing amidst the crowds that slowly ambled about on the upper deck of the visitor center, she rested one hand against the rail and raised her other to shield her face from the sun. Positioned a kilometer and a half above sea level, Brasstown Bald North Georgiathe visitors center sat atop the tallest peak in the region. From there, it commanded an unprecedented view of the long, snaking ridges and deep, green valleys below.

It was long believed that these mountains had grown up from the depths of the Iapetus Ocean. She frowned and thought back to the maps she had studied. Each represented a snapshot of the planet’s probable history. She ran through them quickly in her mind. From one map to the next, the planet’s history played in her head like a movie. Acatlan broke away from Gondwana and drifted north until, like the fist of an angry titan, it crashed against Laurentia to the north, raising mountains from what had been seabed as the two landmasses were crushed together.

But that version of history was incorrect, she was now learning. At least one of her maps was wrong, and the key to determining which one lay many hundreds of kilometers to the south. The scenario that she now tried to imagine had not only raised this mountain range, it had crushed an entire ocean out of existence. The Rheic Sea, a body of water which had dominated most of the equator of this planet, had been so thoroughly obliterated that one had to look on top of mountains for evidence that it had ever existed—and even then, you had to know what you were searching for.

Let’s say you opened up a random page of a novel and you found the author talking about an “arc terrane,” or throwing around terms like “orogeny” and “tectonothermal records.” You would probably think that you were reading a strange piece of science fiction. Acatlan, Laurentia, and the Iapetus Ocean certainly sound like names taken from some work of fantasy, but the only element of fiction in the snippet of story above is the main character.

This week’s writing prompt is going to seem a bit unusual. I mean, we are mostly fiction writers here, right? What are we doing taking on a prompt like this? Hear me out on this one and give it a try. There’s every reason to tackle a challenge like this one, and I’ll tell you why, but first…

The Prompt

Describe the formation of the Appalachian Mountains, including the recent discovery made at the Acatlán Complex. Don’t forget to explain how the Acatlán data could radically change our view of Earth’s geological history.

Get creative with your explanation! Stick to the facts, of course; don’t make things up that aren’t true, but think of interesting new ways that you could get the information across to your readers. You might approach this as a purely practical exercise, or you could use fictional settings and characters to help you illustrate the ideas you want to communicate. Or you might come up with a different approach entirely.

Any medium is welcomed! However, for our prose writers, setting a goal between three hundred and one thousand words would probably be about right.

When most people think about creating fiction, they imagine a writer inventing whole new worlds out of thin air. While that is certainly part of the writing process, particularly for fantasy and science-fiction authors, it is not always the easy, carefree act that people might expect it to be.

My editor recently consulted with a group of writers who were creating a new world for their fantasy series, and he described to me the process they went through as they invented the settings in which their story was to take place.

“They were meticulous,” he said. “They had ideas about what they wanted this world to look like, and they were asking questions like, ‘How do we make this geologically possible?’ and ‘If we want this to be the case, what do the laws of physics say about how to make it happen?’ because the answers to those questions had huge implications for the plot of the story. They took all of these grains of ideas they had, figured out how to make them happen, and then they spun this whole, just incredible planet out of the research they did into how to make that planet really really work.”

Before beginning their work on the actual plot of the manuscript, this team of writers put a great deal of effort into building a functioning world for their characters.

“They knew exactly what the force of gravity on the surface of the planet was, 8.453 m/s2, and they showed me the circumference of the planet down to a few kilometers,” my editor told me. “They could tell you how tall the planet’s mountains would get and why. They were figuring out its weather patterns. How big its forests were. The amount of gravel that was mixed in with the soil of a particular valley. It’s geological history. They even knew the history of its moons.”

This might seem like wasted effort, but putting in that time and thought early on opened up previously unimagined possibilities for their story. For instance, someone living in this world might look up into the sky and see shards of a destroyed moon lazily drifting from one horizon to another. It also gave them ideas for additional stories, where they had only had one to begin with. What these authors created for themselves was a rich and promising universe, with a complex history full of potential subjects for sequels and prequels.

“They took something simple,” he says, “and they brought it to life in a way I never would have expected. That is now the standard I hold myself to—and the standard I hold you to.”

What is more, these were fantasy writers, who proved that it is possible to take hard science and use it to invent a world of magic, fantastical creatures, gods, and monsters. Far from standing in their way, the laws of physics actually worked in their favor because they did their research.

So why did their efforts pay off the way they did? Why not just create a world on the fly? The answer, it turns out, is pretty simple. Even a fictional world must be internally consistent and must follow its own internal rules, though those rules do not always have to work in the real world.

Carefully researching and understanding the rules that make the real world tick can give writers an invaluable leg-up when they begin creating the rules for their fictional universes. That is what this week’s prompt is all about. Huge forces and massive amounts of energy came together, “like the fist of an angry titan,” to reshape the face of our planet. As one writer put it, a collision occurred that “sent the once flat land into mountain-size ripples.”

The event that you will be writing about this week is just as colossal and intense as anything from fiction, but it really happened, and the evidence of it can be seen across the globe. It’s exciting! It’s pretty damn epic! And it provides an excellent topic for us writers to sharpen our skills on.

What’s more, there is no good reason for reality to be boring. As the late Carl Sagan said, “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars.” Not so long ago in the history of the universe, you were a nebula, and before that, a supernova. Now, you live on a sphere of gas and rock, orbiting a sun that was born from the same stuff that you were. You were conceived under the protection of a blue nitrogen atmosphere, defended from the ravages of space by the electromagnetism of your planet’s spinning core. With precious few exceptions, every joy, every sorrow, every conflict that your species has ever experienced, has taken place in this setting, which is at once more awesome and far stranger than fiction. And we take it for granted daily.

Sagan_StarStuffTo me, that is what makes my job so exciting. I get to spend my time learning about this stranger-than-fiction world we live in, and then I get to take what I’ve learned, and turn it into strange fiction. How on Earth did I wind up this lucky?!

The thing is, you can be lucky like me, too. All it takes is the curiosity to wonder, the determination to pursue your curiosity, and the desire to use your imagination. After that, it’s just a matter of practice. That is the standard I hold myself to—and the standard I hold you to.

So what is the best way to get started when you are looking for information about something like this? My first step, once I have an idea in mind that I would like to know more about, is to search the internet.

Here are some search terms that you might try for this prompt:

  • “Acatlan Complex”
  • “Rheic Ocean”
  • “Iapetus Ocean”
  • “Appalachian Mountains”
  • “formation of the Appalachian Mountains”
  • “Appalachian Mountains Acatlan Complex”

(Combining some of these search terms will help you narrow your results so that you can find more targeted information faster.)

Want a little creative inspiration to get you pumped up for this prompt? Try checking out some music from the artist NiT GriT. And if you need something to kickstart your sense of curiosity, check out the video below by Symphony of Science!

> Back to Writing Prompts


Schwind_Begraebnis bw(Roggen Wulf, 2014)

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