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When you write about the world you built, you have to immerse the audience on it by describing the environment. I'm on the process of worldbuilding a world with lots of deserts in it.

Problem is: I've never been to a desert. And don't have the economic means to travel to one just to know how to describe it.

I know how to google images, but I am still wary of describing a place I've never been and that may be recognizable to other people, because I may commit imprecisions (for example, describing the color of a sunset or the feeling of the sand).

Do other worldbuilders have any suggestion regarding available resources that they use to mitigate these gaps on their perceptions?

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    $\begingroup$ This looks like a question about writing, not world building, so maybe writers.stackexchange.com would be better place? $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi Mar 7 '17 at 20:38
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    $\begingroup$ I think this question is still valid here; it might also work on Writers, but that doesn't mean we have to move it. $\endgroup$ – DaaaahWhoosh Mar 7 '17 at 21:13
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    $\begingroup$ This isn't quite a writer's SE question. Though he is asking how would he write to describe something, the real question he is asking is how can he do research to build his world that takes place in a climate he hasn't experienced. Though questions like this has come up in Writers, it honestly could go both ways IMO. $\endgroup$ – ggiaquin16 Mar 7 '17 at 21:15
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    $\begingroup$ I agree this doesn't need to be moved or closed, but the question starts "how to describe...", which is a writers thing. I am guessing that asking this here as a worldbuilding question (maybe with edit to clarify) and then doing a follow up at writers if needed, might be optimal? $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi Mar 7 '17 at 21:26
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    $\begingroup$ OK... Since I have gotten some answers here, I'll keep this question for a while more. It is exactly how @ggiaquin said... $\endgroup$ – Pedro Gabriel Mar 7 '17 at 21:26
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Also, I would watch documentaries on those climates. There is always something on national geographics. Youtube videos even. As you are watching, listen to the sounds. Look up plants you see and read about them. Do they give off any smells? What would it feel like to be in that kind of climate? Humid? Dry? If you can't go there, bring it to you. Network and ask people who have been or lived in those places to describe what the environment is like! For your desert issue, I wouldn't mind helping you out if needed as I have lived in the desert for 20 years now both in Arizona and Saudi Arabia (both deserts but very different). Try to go on forums and ask around. Plenty of ways to figure out the climate culture without traveling :)

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  • $\begingroup$ Cool! I won't be diving on the novel soon, because there are some projects I want to finish first... but when I start my desert novel, I know I can ask you about the details. $\endgroup$ – Pedro Gabriel Mar 7 '17 at 21:37
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    $\begingroup$ @PedroGabriel understandable bro. I have a book that I have been writing in my head now for a couple years, but been nervous to pull the trigger and put it on paper. $\endgroup$ – ggiaquin16 Mar 7 '17 at 21:39
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If you want to see video of an area, and can't find any documentaries, you can always check out Shutter Stock. They have a ton of videos of just about anything, and their search is pretty good.

You can preview any of them without buying them.

As an example, here are the search results for desert sunset.

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  • $\begingroup$ Very nice! Thank you... But aren't some of those photos and films changed in order to look more spectacular? Because that affects realism, no? $\endgroup$ – Pedro Gabriel Mar 7 '17 at 21:40
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    $\begingroup$ Pedro, I can edit my post later and give you a few image links of the desert. I just went a hiking a bunch this weekend and have some good shots. You would be surprised how good landscape looks without any touch ups. These are shots taken from my cellphone even. Photographers do usually touch up the colors to make them more vivid but it isn't so much so that it is unrealistic. $\endgroup$ – ggiaquin16 Mar 7 '17 at 21:46
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If you want to something a bit less superficial than looking at images, try reading accounts of desert travellers. This will take rather more research than you might wish, but can provide all sorts of entertaining anecdotes which you can steal. Try, for instance, T.E. Lawrence's books.

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Start with what you do know: The world around you. Use your 5 senses.

For a sunset, look at a sunset at your home then start thinking about how it would look. Is the sun the same color? Is there more or less pollution? Fog? Dust?

What types of buildings do you see when you look at the sunset? Would those types of buildings be there? Different buildings; what type? What do the buildings look like in your world? Maybe there aren't any buildings. What is there instead?

Now start going into detail, look at the pieces of what you see:

For Example, look at the roofs of the buildings. How would the roofs be different?

What kinds of sounds would they here? On a space ship, would the life support be silent or where there be a constant background noise? How about the sound of the engines, if any? Are the doors silent or do they make noise? How far away can you hear the noise? Huge metal doors can be heard from quite a distance and the clang would be transmitted through the hull. Characters might be able to identify different doors on their ship from sound. A Star Trek door makes sound but one wall between you and it would block that sound.

Think of the smells. The midwest smells different from the west coast because the moisture and soil are different. Pollution has a smell. Wood cook fires have a smell. Plastic has a smell.

For touch, does the ship have a constant vibration? Is it hotter or colder? Drier or damper?

You can probably forget taste, unless your character likes to lick the scenery (I am not reading that story).

Go down to as much detail as you can. Not all of this detail needs to go into the story but it'll be there, influencing the characters.

Remember that people, thus your characters, tend to focus only on what is immediately important to them.

You can start with a scene where someone is fixing an engine. Then he feels a breeze that provides a welcome relief from the heat but it has the smell of moisture in it. Now, can he finish the front left nacelle of the hovercar before it rains or should he spend his time dragging the tarp over it? He looks up in the sky and sees....

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  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for this answer... but my problem isn't in how to describe things. Rather it is how to know that my descriptions are realistic, when I've never experienced an environment like that? $\endgroup$ – Pedro Gabriel Mar 7 '17 at 21:30
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    $\begingroup$ If it's on Earth google the area or look at documentaries. If it is not on Earth, you don't need accuracy as much as authenticity. Making it feel right is more important than making it be right. $\endgroup$ – ShadoCat Mar 7 '17 at 21:34
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, it's on "Earth" (emphasis on the " ") $\endgroup$ – Pedro Gabriel Mar 7 '17 at 21:40
  • $\begingroup$ Then use documentaries and focus on what is different. If you get a detail wrong that a local would know, 1) you've only annoyed a very small portion of your readers, and 2) it's not wrong, that's just one of the differences (then you appear to be clever). $\endgroup$ – ShadoCat Mar 7 '17 at 21:52
  • $\begingroup$ ShadoCat is right on. Write what you know. Describe the place you have been so that your reader is there too. Then go thru and edit it. $\endgroup$ – Willk Mar 7 '17 at 23:14
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Visit a pet shop or zoo.

Environments established to house animals do what they can to replicate the environment. If you go to a zoo, you can stand in the exhibits and often get a pretty good feel for the real place. Pet shop terrariums aren't as immersive, but the backdrop projections combined with seeing the animals/plants that go into a given terrarium can get you started.

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  • $\begingroup$ Last time i went to a zoo was not that long ago. But to me it didn't feel the least bit like something resembling the animal's habitat, but just like a cage, decorated with some props that might make life a bit nicer for the respective animals. For the specific example: nothing felt the least bit like a desert. Obviously, that might be just me, though. $\endgroup$ – Burki Mar 8 '17 at 14:36
  • $\begingroup$ YMMV. Zoos come in various qualities. I've been to several that recreate the environs to the best of their technical ability. @Burki $\endgroup$ – SRM - Reinstate Monica Mar 8 '17 at 14:55

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