One of the things I do when I have a minute to spare, but can’t do much but think, say, while waiting at a traffic light, is to ponder a fictional setting that I’ve been puttering around with for years. I think about pieces of that world, characters in it, historical events, magical mechanics, whatever seems most interesting at the moment. I’ve written some of it down, and I’ve structured some of it into a series of stories I’d like to tell, and a lot of art I’d like to do.
Sometimes I find it helpful to share my creative process, if only because it forces me to think about it, and possibly refine it. If you all can get something out of my meanderings, hey, that’s a bonus.
This time, I want to write about Geistflies.
These little guys, to be precise, or at least, a fictional variant:
Fireflies (or lightning bugs, as some call them) are mostly harmless, but have a certain visual charm on dark nights where their lights show up. As with so many other weird phenomena, they are ripe for fictional explanations. We know today that fireflies glow thanks to chemical reactions, but a less informed populace might invent other reasons for the glow. Sometimes these reasons are based in evidence and observation, sometimes they are pure whimsy. Often, there’s a bit of both involved, especially if location is important and patterns show up.
And as is so often the case, reality can be weirder than fiction anyway. Take, for example, the weird story of the “Angel’s Glow” from the U.S. Civil War. Some Civil War soldiers had wounds that glowed in the dark. Weird, crazy stuff. That article is just outlining a theory still, but a reasonable one. And yet, to a delirious soldier in the field, would bioluminescent hitchhiker bacteria be the first thought?
Anyway, I designed that Geistfly Swarm card for some friends a couple years back (which actually is why I started digging into card design, which led to the Tinker Decks and Tinker Dice). I just used a photo from a quick online search and ran with it to mock up graphic design concepts. The text is really just official looking gibberish I made up so it looked like a card from an actual game, and I did the rest of the graphic design, experimenting with visuals. The title of the card, “Geistfly Swarm” was just part of this creative tinkering… but it’s a name that has stuck in my mind since then. It was just an experiment with making an interesting sounding name, sort of like my mild fascination with alliteration, but there’s something interesting happening there.
One, it rolls off the tongue well, with a pair of vowel sounds that echo each other in the two syllables. There’s a lyrical quality to the term. This lyricism can inform the genesis of the term, culturally speaking, and how it’s applied in society in the novel setting. Perhaps the whimsy involved means that it’s largely used as a children’s story term. Perhaps, though, like the Grimm Brothers stories, there’s a dark secret at its heart, and it’s been candy coated by the pretty sounds over the years.
Two, it’s a mishmash of two languages, German and English. What sort of culture would use such a mix? Would anyone try to be more grammatically correct and call them “ghostflies”? What effect would that have?
Three, what if there are two species involved? Regular fireflies, where the term is used much as we would today, and then the geistflies? What would differentiate the species? Color? Behavior? Location? Mechanics?
…and so I decided that geistflies are an offshoot of normal fireflies. They live in my world that has magic, sometimes wild and powerful, sometimes regimented and almost baked down to a science. This particular bug, the geistfly, doesn’t light up for the same reasons as the firefly. No, these geistflies react to magic and light up purely as a matter of physiology and its reaction and proximity to magic.
That relatively simple idea sparks a new series of questions, then:
Can they be used as detectors? Do they have different reactions to different “flavors” of magic? Where do they live? Can they be domesticated? What is their life cycle, and are they only sensitive to magic when they are adults? Do they feed on magic? How do they interact with magic users or “spells”?
Where does their energy come from to light up?
That one spawns even more questions, like “if they tap into the surrounding magic, how would that affect their behavior?” or “if lighting up drains their own energy, would that mean they avoid magic instinctively purely as a survival mechanism?”, and answers to those would modify the answers to other questions, like using them as detectors.
Or maybe this one: Why are they called geistflies? Have they been linked to ghosts? Are they most prevalent around battlefields, creepy old buildings or graveyards? They aren’t exactly pyreflies, but maybe there are echoes in there somewhere?
I haven’t decided on answers to all of these, and really, it’s possible to dive down the rabbit hole and chase a lot of different aspects of these questions and their implications. To me, that’s one of the great parts of creative writing and worldbuilding. I love asking and answering those questions, and finding out how different ideas play off of each other.
This is also why I love games, where some of that incredible potential can be given to players, making for all sorts of interesting effects.
I’ll work geistflies into the stories somehow. Even little things like this, the details that aren’t the spine of adventure, but rather the spice, are sometimes extremely useful and even important.
P.S. I just ran into this today:
There’s a lot you can pull from real life weirdness for fictional worldbuilding.