The history of lichen: how I build ideas

When I’m planning a story, I often begin by browsing Wikipedia for a few hours. I like to call it Wikiwalking — moving from link to link like I’m searching some intellectual forest, hunting and gathering resources. Trivia often sparks an idea for my world of Aligare (or, at the very least, I learn some stuff.)

When I was scrutinizing an earlier draft version of Render, I knew the main character Rue had a logical, straight-forward nature. She needed a family trade that would suit her — something different from the artisans and tradespeople seen so far in Remedy and Ravel. Rue needed a job that was … math-like. Or scientific in some way. Not the math and science academia we’re used to here on Earth, but someting more folksy and practical.

Personally, I’ve never cared for math, and I prefer science as means of talking about animals, plants, minerals or maybe cool explosions. I’m not the most knowledgeable about how to apply those maths and sciences to everyday stuff. So I began Wikiwalking for some suggestions of jobs based in math and science. After half an hour or so, I ended up on the page for pH, a form of chemistry often tested with litmus paper. And there I found the trivia I was looking for:

Litmus is a water-soluble mixture of different dyes extracted from lichens, especially Roccella tinctoria. It is often absorbed onto filter paper to produce one of the oldest forms of pH indicator, used to test materials for acidity.

Really, I rhetorically asked my computer screen? I had just vaguely assumed that litmus paper was a recent invention, made in some artificial laboratory. But nope, it comes from this plant:


Okay, technically lichens are composite organisms made up of fungi and algae. Close enough for my purposes.

Humans have used lichens to make dye for centuries. If Roccella tinctoria or something like it grew in the Aligare world, plant-savvy aemets would figure out its properties, too. They wouldn’t understand pH balance quite the way we do, but many plants do have a soil acidity preference, so pH testing would be relevant to Aligare farmers. Maybe even ambitious foragers who want to understand the land better. I could easily imagine Rue mixing soil and dye with some sort of small field kit, working precisely and mapping her surroundings. Perfect!

I didn’t even have to stretch very far to name this useful lichen. On Earth, Roccella tinctoria doesn’t seem to have a common name; people just call it lichen. But the second half of that Latin name works fine for my purposes. It’s a distinctive word without being hard to pronounce, and it vaguely resembles the word tint, so it hints at the colour-changing nature of pH testing. In Aligare, the lichen is called tinctoria and the people who use it are tinctors, who practice the trade of tinctoring. Fantasy nomenclature doesn’t get much easier than that! More evidence that I had found the perfect bit of trivia for the job!

Sometimes I remember that it’s weird to get genuinely excited over some biology information on Wikipedia. But hey, it’s part of being a writer. If I didn’t love searching for trivia and adapting it into a fictional world, I wouldn’t be writing fantasy. And sometimes, to make stuff up, you need an intellectual loan from the real world.

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