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Writing About Landscapes

We went hiking again today.  The sun was out, and so were the lizards.  My 10-year old spotted a dozen of them.  The picture on the right is on a trail to Pollack's Bench, a totally gorgeous path that stays right on the canyon's edge for several miles.

While we walked, I was reminded again of the challenge and importance of writing with the landscape where a story takes place in mind.  I took a very interesting class in grad school called Landscape and California Writers, which was about the landscape's influence on the writers.  Clearly landscape should influence writers and the writing, but often time it doesn't.  That's probably a natural side effect to how most modern folk live.  We are isolated from the land we inhabit.  Most of us don't know (and don't care) about where our food comes from, for example, and the answer is in most cases, it doesn't come from anywhere near you.  It's grown or manufactured or slaughtered and packaged from anywhere in the world.  We don't know where our clothes come from.  We don't have anything to do with the building of our homes.  We spend an inordinate amount of time indoors, and when we are outside, we're encased in our car.

This isn't everyone, naturally.  I went on a nice, short hike with writer Brenda Cooper last weekend.  She's a dog person, so outdoor walks are a part of her ordinary experience.  But for a lot of folks, the landscape around them is a stranger.

Why this is or should be important is that a sense of the land in a story can do so much to influence the feel of the piece.  I guess this is really a discussion of setting, but it feels more vital to me than that.  Grounding a story in the landscape can not only deepen its effect on the reader, but the landscape itself can influence the course of the story.  Different lands produce different narratives.  At least it feels that way to me.

The poet, Ted Hughes, had interesting thoughts on the importance of landscape.  He said in his really cool book for writers, Poetry in the Making, "Surely it is not that we are all secretly in love with the countryside!  But perhaps we are.  Who is to say that we are not all secretly in love with grass and trees, preferably out of sight of houses, or if there are houses they they have to be a country style of houses, a cottage or a manor. . . . The thing about these beauty spots, that brings this sense of relaxation and relief, is the state of mind they put us into.  These are the remains of what the world was once like all over.  They carry us back to the surroundings our ancestors lived in for 150 million years--which is long enough to feel quite at home even in a place as wild and uncivilized as the earth."

Edward Abbey, in the intro to Desert Solitaire said this about getting to know a landscape when he was writing about the desert: "Do not jump into your automobile next June and rush out th the Canyon country hoping to see some of that which I have attempted to evoke in these pages.  In the first place you can't see anything from a car; you've got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thorn bush and cactus.  When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you'll see something, maybe.  Probably not."

What all this has to do with writing, I mean really convincing writing about any place imagined, is that for a writer to authoritatively present a fictive world, there ought to be a little of Abbey's crawling on hands and knees over sandstone and through cactus.  The story isn't going to really be convincing unless I can start to leave traces of blood on the trail.

I know that sounds hyperbolic and overly dramatic, but so much of what I like about what I like and what I don't like about the other stuff is the sense of a the author plugging into the characters' landscape.  I'm writing a story right now with two characters.  One is on a slower than light starship that will take 4,000 years to get where she's going.  She's not going to be awake for most of it, but while she is she is living in a very alien landscape of metal hallways and the total vacuum of interstellar space no more than a few steps away at any time.  She is farther away from home and its familiar landscapes than any human being has ever been, and she is never coming back.  She knows this.  I think a part of the story has to be about what her new "landscape" would feel like.  It will influence the story.  At the same time, another character is snowbound in a late 19th Century mining camp cabin.  He's cut off, running out of things to burn, and a few hours from freezing to death. 

The landscape has to be a part of his story too, if I can fully imagine it.  If I can remember that where I live ought to impact me, and where my characters live ought to impact them. 

Tolkien knew it.  Frank Herbert knew it.  Kim Stanley Robinson knows it.  I should know it too. 

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Comments

( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
csinman
Mar. 14th, 2008 08:18 am (UTC)
So, did you bleed in a cold, dark, dripping cave? Because if you did, it totally worked on me while I was reading Talebones at work earlier. Hahaha

Thanks for quoting/linking Abbey. Anyone who describes that thing about crawling around leaving blood is my kind of human.
jimvanpelt
Mar. 14th, 2008 04:02 pm (UTC)
Hi, Cor1n! Glad you dropped by. I love the art work for that piece, by the way. It is a landscape story, isn't it?
csinman
Mar. 14th, 2008 10:36 pm (UTC)
I loved that artwork too! I keep peeking at it again and wishing it was a real place I could go look at. (And not die.)
bookburned
Mar. 14th, 2008 07:45 pm (UTC)
I just found your journal through miss csinman up there. I am very glad I did.
jimvanpelt
Mar. 15th, 2008 07:45 am (UTC)
Thanks for dropping by!
kmckiernan
Mar. 15th, 2008 05:38 am (UTC)
Yes. Yes. And, yes. I'm lucky in that I grew up in a landscape surrounded by landscapes. And, as you point out, landscapes are more than grassy plains or blistering sand. Landscapes can also be concrete jungles or single-person escape pods. Like anything else, one has to do their research.

A couple years back, I was writing a section of my book where a character was suspended in a gel-filled, healing tube. This landscape was so foreign to me that I couldn't even begin to write about it (and believe me, I tried). Stumped, I ran to Toy-R-Us and got myself a bucket of children's slime and some Slarp. I played with them both, dunking my hands, arms, and feet in and moving within the slime until I got to "know" it. I combined this with my experiences getting a death mask done for a theatre make-up class and then wrote the scene from experience.

Also, sometimes we can't immerse ourselves in a landscape for this or that reason. Use the resources you have at your disposal! I'm currently writing about a ritual where the characters throw themselves off of a cliff... at night. Having never jumped off a cliff myself and not thinking I'd like to anytime soon, I called my younger sister and asked her to recount her experiences bungee jumping in New Zealand. We spent an hour and a half on the phone revisiting her memories of the adventure. I got a wonderful sensory memory dump that I can now build from. (I also typed as she talked so she'll have it as a written memory.)

Thanks for posting this great topic, Jim. (smile) The picture is stunning!
jimvanpelt
Mar. 15th, 2008 06:32 am (UTC)
Hi, Kayt. Thanks for dropping in. I see from your blog that you do a lot of landscape photography. I liked your picture of the logs. I have a friend who thinks every picture I take ought to have people in it, and when I show him photos he say, "I hope they're not more of those 'texture' shots."
kmckiernan
Mar. 16th, 2008 08:20 pm (UTC)
LOL. I happen to be one of those people compelled to touch anything that has even the slightest texture. I dont' know if it's because I was a costumer in college and loved touching the various fabrics we worked with or if it's genetic. I suspect it is at least partly genetic because my older sister is the same way.

I think I take a lot of landscape photos because I'm genuinely awed and amazed each time I step outside. Again, I don't know if this is because I grew up in an incredible place or if it's because my folks and grandfolks instilled an appreciation in me. Probably both. I'm just grateful I haven't lost the ability to stop and really look at things with that appreciation.

Anyway, thanks again, this is a great post.
bjcooper
Mar. 18th, 2008 01:01 am (UTC)
And wasn't that a nice hike?
Nice post - thanks a bunch!
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )