Six impossible things

Landscape vs. setting

Earlier this week, Minnesota Public Radio replayed  an interview with novelist Richard Ford, and some of his comments (around 23 minutes into the broadcast) got me thinking about landscape.

First off, landscape isn’t the same as setting. They overlap, of course, but one can tell an urban tale set in Denver, a rural tale set at a dude ranch twenty or forty miles west, or a story of aspiring ski stars set at a Canadian ski resort, and they’ll all have similar landscape, in the form of the Rocky Mountains.

Landscape, for my purposes, is a combination of the underlying geology – the rivers, hills, plains, lakes, mountains, etc. – and the way the land looks at the moment. Cultivated fields, lush forests, trees blackened by a recent wildfire or blown flat by a storm, a wasteland of stumps left by someone cutting acres of trees…all those are part of the landscape.

Setting includes landscape, but it also includes a lot more of what people have done on the landscape (as opposed to what they have done to the landscape, like digging canals or cutting trees). When you say a book is set in Paris, you’re including a lot more in that simple phrase than just the fact that the book is set in a city built on a broad river with some islands in it. You’re including political things – the country, the government at whatever time period you’ve chosen (and all the tensions with other governments that happen to be current), the language, the ethnic mix of people you’d expect to find. You’re including history, from the World Wars to Napoleon to the French Revolution and on back to Julius Ceasar’s Gallic wars. You’re including cultural stuff, from the food to the Louvre to the Moulin Rouge to customs to clothes.

From a writer’s perspective, landscape is a lot easier to make convincing adjustments to than setting, especially if we’re talking a fantasy or SF world that isn’t like Earth at all. I’ve solved several plot problems by inventing an impassable landscape feature (mountains, a river gorge, a swamp) and plunking it right where my characters were trying to go to avoid a difficulty (instead of facing it the way I wanted them to). Presto, they’re stuck doing what I want.

If I’d tried to do the same thing with setting, the ripple effect would mean changing all sorts of other things – at best, a heavy-duty rewrite; at worst, a completely different book. Of course, there’s a ripple effect from changing landscape, too, but it usually ripples out away from the story, into the Terra Incognita that the characters haven’t been to (so no rewriting) and aren’t going to go to ever (which was the point of inventing impassable mountains in the first place).

Landscape is something that different people react to in different ways. A lot of early settlers to the “big sky” country in Montana and the Great Plains went home after a few years because they couldn’t stand all that space; others found it gave them the sense of infinite possibility that Ford talks about in his interview. I have friends raised in cities who are acutely uncomfortable in rural areas, or going camping…and others who love it and who wouldn’t miss their annual trek to the Boundary Waters wilderness area.

That may seem obvious, but a writer has to think about it on three levels: the writer, the readers, and the characters.

Writers first need to be aware of their reaction to whatever landscape they’re using, and that others may not feel the same way, because without that awareness, it’s almost impossible to tweak what one is doing in the story, even if one knows that other people may not react the same way.

Next, the writer needs to think about whether their characters are similar or different – whether the wilderness the writer loves is something that his fussy scholar character would find untidy or even threatening, for instance. It’s also good to have different characters in a book have different reactions and comfort levels, even if those never quite come to the surface in obvious ways. The author may never explain why the London street-thief is wide awake in the woods all night while his companions, who’re used to camping out, snore away, but it’ll add to the characterization even if only on a subconscious level.

Finally, the writer needs to be aware that not all readers will react to a particular landscape the way the writer does. This means that the writer who sees “big sky” country as a land of infinite possibility may want to throw in a line or two somewhere to indicate this for readers who find that landscape agoraphobia-inducing, instead of just assuming that everybody who reads the story will get it because it is SO obvious. It’s obvious to the writer, but not necessarily to everyone else.

9 Comments
  1. I think landscaping is something I tend to overlook with my writing. I should probably give it a little more thought, but I think because I don’t really like long descriptions as a reader, I skip almost all of it when I’m writing, but I should probably find a balance somewhere in the middle.

  2. I always think about landscape, because I love looking at them. However, I tend to skip over long descriptive passages when I’m reading, so I don’t inflict them on readers of my stories. Instead I’ll include a phrase or maybe a sentence in passing to communicate the landscape while I move the story forward.

    Most often, I mention landscape via a character’s reaction to it, either his or her emotional reaction or a physical action taken to engage with the physical surroundings.

    Some landscapes are more “chamber-scapes.” My novel Troll-magic has many scenes in an enchanted underground palace, so my characters are reacting and engaging with an interior “landscape.”

  3. Huh, I was about to respond “yep, I skip long descriptions too” when I remembered some VERY interesting long descriptions in books I’ve read.
    First book had pages of descriptions in a castle and all the things in it. Main character was a thief carefully evaluating it all and trying not to attract the guards attention.
    Second book had a main character on vacation in the mountains trying to recover from a bad mental breakdown. She spent many pages looking at the soothing scenery trying to relax. (and accidentally witnessed a murder).

    Guess it depends on what the long descriptions are trying to do. Most writers show characters interacting with other people – but interacting with scenery or inanimate objects can be just as revealing.

  4. I just finished the story of the book (_Sorcery & Cecelia or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot_). Thank you for the letter game explanation at the back which I am now reading^W^W^Wjust had to finish reading. I thought it might be something like that. It sounds as if you two really had a smashing time (including Caroline and china; and Cecy and the chocolate pot).

    BTW, what is the proper way to punctuate a list that consists of only two items where each item is a compound that uses “and”? Someone suggested the semi-colon, and it is the best that I can think of, but I am not comfortable with it.

  5. Finally, the writer needs to be aware that not all readers will react to a particular landscape the way the writer does.

    Indeed. My characters were driving through northern New Mexico at one point; since I’d spent summer vacations there as a kid, that was all I needed to say… for me. All my housemate, who’s never been there, got out of that was, I don’t know, I guess there’s some land or something? I’m not a fan of long descriptions either, but a few key phrases about the desolate beauty of that area made a world of difference.

    I find I actually do better descriptions of places I’ve never been than places I have. I’m much too prone to use verbal shorthand for places I know personally, which doesn’t work for anybody but, well, me. Anybody else find that?

  6. LizV, I find the reverse when reading computer documentation. If the person who wrote it wrote it from his understanding, it is very difficult for those of us who do not have that understanding. (That is why we are reading the documentation in the first place.)

    “Write for your audience.” is so widely applicable.

  7. Gene, that’s an example that really hits home, because I used to write computer documentation — and translating from “geek” to “non-geek” was a specialty of mine! I hadn’t thought about landscape descriptions in that light; I shall have to keep that in mind the next time I’m writing about a place I know well.

  8. This is so true. With Bujold’s Sharing Knife books, there was one Australian listie (so, already a confirmed fan), who felt the landscape *rejected* her, whereas I (coming from somewhere close to that area) found it as comfortable a fit as a warm, worn blanket on a cool morning.

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