I think bats are one of the coolest animals – and one of the most maligned. Look at their faces. They’re basically flying puppies, and many species can eat up to 8,000 insects in a single night. We used to have a small colony of Mexican free-tail bats in a tree across the street from our house, and we never had mosquito issues. It broke my heart when the neighbors cut down that tree and the bats moved.
And when you talk about chocolate, and the ecosystem where it’s grown, it’s hard to ignore the importance of bats. Cacao trees grow fruit in pods with thick, waxy outsides, pineapple scented pulp, and purple-brown seeds that eventually can become chocolate. Bats are one of the animals with the patience to chew through the pod to get to the sweet pulp. They disperse the seeds, helping propagate new cacao trees. Meanwhile, other bats are busy eating insects that otherwise might harm the trees. And still different species of bats are pollinating other plants in the same ecosystem, such as banana flowers.
So when I was worldbuilding animals in the Chocoverse, I wanted to include a bat-like animal that would be important to the ecosystem on Krom. It’s established in Pure Chocolate (Book 2) that Brill (Protagonist Bo’s Krom boyfriend) had a couple of pet kresps when he was a kid, and that these purple bat-like creatures are intelligent enough to whistle duets with their owners, who often keep them as colorful, living parts of elaborate flower gardens. This groundwork pays off in Fake Chocolate. With chocolate on earth threatened with extinction, Bo has to turn to Krom to see if the aliens will give a couple of the cacao trees in their experimental plantation back to her. Only – cacao’s a non-native species. It attracts a whole set of nocturnal insects that the Krom gardeners didn’t expect, because they don’t cultivate plants the night insects usually go for. And the kresps don’t stop the maraudering insects — because they’re not nocturnal. (There is of course a Krom nocturnal insect-eating creature that’s a bit like a mean-tempered cross between a frog and a sugar glider. But that won’t come into play until later, in a planned short story, and nobody would keep one in their garden.) But by the time Bo asks for help, every green leaf in the cacao plantation on Krom has been devoured by the bugs, and Bo can’t believe that not having real bats has closed off an avenue of hope for her world.
Ecosystems are interconnected. And when travel becomes easy, the “ecosystem” in question grows ever larger (as everything currently going on with the Coronavirus illustrates. Someone sneezes in China, and five minutes later they’re closing schools in Italy.) I spent a lot of time when I was designing the Chocoverse thinking about the planets and what they would have as far as resources, and how that would shape conflicts, both internally and with the rest of the galaxy.
That brought on some speculation about parallels with real-world history. For instance, rats showed up on the Hawaiian Islands because they’d hitched rides on sailing ships coming from Europe. So in part of Earth’s “future history,” I establish that there’s an invisible pest animal that infests starships and eats massive quantities of plant material. Earth winds up overrun with the things, and there’s a famine over half the globe before the Earthlings get up to speed on how to exterminate them. Bo complains in Free Chocolate about how unfair that was, and Brill replies that just about every planet that engages in space travel now has these pests, so it’s not like anyone was picking on Earth.
And I thought about how conflicts start small. A goodly amount of the conflict that runs through the entire trilogy echoes outward from a local conflict on Evevron, home planet to Chestla, Bo’s RA at coulinary school – and later her bodyguard. Bad things have happened to Evevron’s environment, leading to dust-bowl conditions and massive amethyst-tinted sandstorms. Two conflicting sides have repeatedly dammed/redug the river that serves as the region’s only source of water. Chestla’s people take desperate measures to tip the conflict in their favor – and wind up unleashing a parasite that gets off the planet, and threatens to overwhelm the entire galaxy. It’s all interconnected. And because it’s interconnected, these planets all live or die together.
Interconnectivity also brings on galactic level conflict. After all, the collision of values and traditions is often incendiary. Brill’s people are explorers, who believe in “open sourcing” commodities, to prevent people from fighting over them. They did that to Earth – and Earth’s still mad about it. The Evevrons have had several wars with the Zantites, shark-like aliens who are poised to invade Earth to get access to the only unique botanical commodity Earth managed to hold onto at First Contact: chocolate. And the Evevrons have values about violence and war that are the opposite of those of the Krom, which makes Brill and Chestla unlikely friends.
And yet – Bo cares deeply about people from all of these planets. She finds ways to cut through the prejudice and the pain of past hurts to bring her friends together to help her save Earth. Because interconnectivity can be positive too.
Yeah. I spiraled straight into a worldbuilding/research rabbit hole. I wound up putting together an entire Wiki (using wikiDpad) to keep it all organized and consistent. And a wiki itself shows interconnectivity that makes you think differently as a writer. You just slap down two smashed together capitalized words, and you can link back to all the biological traits common to your characters from a specific planet. Or to all the people a certain character has interacted with. Or killed.
I also have a timeline to keep Earth’s future history, and all of my galactic history tracked.
But probably the biggest thing I built: Lexicons. Globalization is changing the way we talk now. Social media has us shortening words to get more information in within smaller character counts. There are more and more portmanteaus. (It isn’t an accident that my protagionist’s full name, Bodacious, is one of the most classic smashed words, from bold and audacious.) Languages like Japanese are acquiring more “katakana” words – loan words from other languages, especially English. Just imagine what would happen if we really did make first contact with aliens. Suddenly the whole Earth is “home,” and everyone’s thinking about language on their home world differently.
Add to that the idea that chocolate is suddenly Earth’s most important resource – and that it can only be grown between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. This shift in focus changes everything. Which means I have several lexicons for how Bo is using both English and Spanish.
I also have lexicons for three of the alien languages that I use in the book. The words people use centers around their values and traditions, and what’s present in their environment. So in Brill’s world, where the Krom’s color-changing irises allow others to see the shades of emotion in their thoughts, they have tons of color words and emotion words. (Contact with Krom language has led to the smashed together emotion words trending on Earth in Bo’s time. Krom are also so pervasive as an explorer/trader race that Krom is the root language for Universal.) There are also a large number of words in Krom that revolve around the heart – and in Fake Chocolate, Bo finally gets to understand why.
So much of what I put into play earlier on takes on new implications in Fake Chocolate, beyond just the bats and the heart words. For example, there are phrases that the Zantites use as part of their formalistic language. One of them is, “I will do my best. With all my might.” And the appropriate response is, “Then your success is assured.” It was used several times in the first two books, most importantly to bind Bo to a promise not to succumb to the drug addiction that was forced on her early on. So in a scene in Book 3, where Bo is given an impossible task by the Zantite king as a condition for sparing her planet, it’s chilling when she says what she’s supposed to say, “I will do my best, with all my might,” and he doesn’t say anything back. In his mind, she’s already failed. And the reader knows it.
Which is really what wordbuilding is about – teaching the reader the specifics of the world you have created, so that they can connect with it. Because if they can’t, it doesn’t matter how intricately you have designed it.
Amber Royer’s Fake Chocolate is out now in North America, and will be available on April 14th in the UK. The first two books in the series, Free Chocolate and Pure Chocolate are out now, published by Angry Robot Books in North America and in the UK.
Here’s the synopsis for the new novel:
When disease ravages Earth’s cacao plantations, Bo Benitez returns home to help with the media spin to hide that chocolate is in danger of being lost forever. HGB has come up with a new product — one which doesn’t appease the cocoa-addicted murderous, shark-toothed aliens threatening to invade the planet. Someone has to smooth things out. Just when Bo starts to make headway, someone tries to kidnap her. While trying to avoid more would-be-kidnappers, Bo finds out that HGB is developing a cure for withdrawal from the Invincible Heart. Will she let her need to be physically whole again tie her to HGB and its enigmatic CEO? When she gets a key piece of evidence that would unravel secrets from three different planets, she has tough choices to make about the future of her world and its place in the galaxy.
Also on CR: Annotated Chapter of Pure Chocolate