Placing rivers in your world

Here’s a post by Marie Brennan at Book View Cafe: New Worlds: Rivers

Rivers in Rokugan do not join together. They separate. That lake in the northeast: okay, it flows down from the mountains, but then . . . does it split? Or is that western branch flowing eastward to the sea, joining up with the eastern branch (which apparently flows through a small mountain range?), only then you have to assume that the major river running from northwest to southeast is the one that splits — just like the one due south of the mountains, down near the coast — or the lake in the eastern edge of the mountains, that somehow both flows north through the mountains and south to the sea — and the tiny little river along the coast that inexplicably has enough flow to form both a substantial bay and split off to form the biggest delta in the Empire — and let’s not even talk about what’s happening in that big patch of mountains at the very bottom of the map. It’s the setting’s equivalent of Mordor; we’ll just chalk it up to evil magic and move on.

I do spend some time gazing at maps and making sure rivers flow downhill! But I have never drawn a landmass that was actually based on a real landmass and put rivers in what were definitely the right spots … wait, I did do that once. I started with a map of Borneo. (Unpublished, so if you can’t think which book that is, that would be why.)

But usually I just draw the map and throw some mountains in there. And then put in rivers that I presume do flow consistently downhill. This is a really fun example that Brennan uses to illustrate how not to situate rivers, but you know what? It also makes me want to do a map where Evil Magic makes rivers flow uphill in some region. That would be entertaining!

Which Brennan recognizes:

However, if you do that, you have to do that. Make it clear to the reader that this is a setting where the normal laws of nature do not apply: rivers diverge instead of converging (and don’t become smaller as a result), water flows uphill in its determination to cross a mountain range, etc.

True! You should definitely at least mention that magic was involved. I’ve done that, though not for rivers specifically. I trust no one came away from WINTER OF ICE AND IRON with the idea that I thought a northern desert made geographical sense. Several times a character mentioned that this desert was created via a magical disaster.

Now I want to create a world where a river flows uphill in its determination to cross a mountain range. Would that be a river spirit? A river dragon? … I just realized I could work that in to my current WIP — not a spirit or dragon, but the interaction of the different layers of the world. Hmm. Don’t know that I’ll find reason to do that, but I sure could.

You know, one hard SF story that has a water element I don’t understand is Kirstein’s Steerswoman series. I don’t get how the “dolphin stairs” can possibly work. I mean … how do the dolphins get back up to the top? Have any of you who’ve read the series got a clear idea of how that works?

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6 thoughts on “Placing rivers in your world”

  1. There are fish stairs in a lot of rivers, usually where dams or locks would otherwise impede their travel.
    If they are meant for fish that can jump (slightly) out of the water, against the flow, like salmon, the fishstairs can really be stairlike stepped pools or natural rapids.
    Otherwise, I’ve also seen a switchback variant with a limited flow, in which a long zigzag in a concrete channel (with alternating 4/5 crosswalls every 60 cm) bypasses a hydro-electric dam to allow smaller fish to avoid and pass the dam.

    As dolphins can jump completely out of the water, the dolphin stair steps could be a long series of stepped pools, each maybe a meter and a half higher than the one below. Each pool needs to have enough width and depth to allow the dolphins to land, rest a bit if necessary (i.e. some would contain localized eddies that break the fast downward flow because of rock formations or something like that), and enough room for the run-up to the next jump.
    All together (with enough resting spots) it could make a very impressive and high stepped waterfall, even if each step wouldn’t be all that high by itself.
    A ship might survive scraping over one edge and dropping down one level, but level after level of such turbulence would be very destructive if it went on long enough. I’ve forgotten the exact difference in level; about 100 or 200 meters? That would mean something like 100 steps, each probably at least 30 meters wide from riser to lip, maybe more. So the whole staircase would take 3 kilometers of rapids instead of being as steep as my mental picture from that book, unless it zigzagged like the small switchback flow I mentioned above.
    Now I need to reread that.

    The material of the series of retaining walls and especially the overflow lips would have to be extraordinarily durable, to withstand the constant scouring of the huge volume of water, with all the debris it contains, of a whole inland sea flowing across there, without eroding away several of the steps into one fall too high for the dolphins to jump.

  2. Hanneke, I’m going to imagine it just as you describe, but it seemed to me that the description in the book implied MUCH higher “steps.” But maybe I didn’t read it carefully enough, or maybe there are series of shallower “steps” here and there along with the massive waterfalls.

    Good point about the engineering difficulties.

    Also, I have found out that Kobo doesn’t have WINTER available yet for Germany or, I think, for a couple other countries because of some odd change in the way distribution is being handled from the Kobo end of things. My editor says she hopes WINTER will indeed be available soon. I sure hope so!

  3. Rachel, thank you for asking about Winter on Kobo for Europe. I’ll just have to be patient a bit longer, then.
    It’s a bit puzzling as an answer, because it’s apparently not universal: yesterday Jim C.Hines announced that his novella Imprinted came out electronically in all the usual stores, and I could buy it immediately from Kobo, with no distribution delay in visibility. So why would (European) Kobo delay your book but not his?
    Whatever the reason, if they’ve promised it will appear in time, I’ll just keep checking for it regularly.

  4. PS. I think you’re right regarding the dolphin stairs; the main flow likely goes straight down, in one or several giant steps, while a relatively small flow to the side follows a zigzag of smaller steps that the dolphins can jump up and down.

    They might be able to go down the big steps, if the weight of the falling water wouldn’t risk crushing them against the bottom of the receiving pool, and either crush them outright or drown them by keeping them pinned in that cauldron in the pool bottom that gets scoured out below large waterfalls. I don’t think it would be safe, unless they could jump forward out of the falling water before it hits the receiving pool. They might consider it a dangerous sort of joyride, like a rollercoaster without all the safety-features, a way to show off.
    But I certainly don’t think they could be strong enough swimmers to swim up a thick wall of falling water, whatever the book says.

  5. I can’t say I actually understood the explanation my editor provided. It all seems rather more complicated than necessary. If it does NOT appear, hit me up for a copy, yes? I don’t have a Kobo file, but I could send you a Word file (easy) or bite the bullet and send you a paper copy if necessary.

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