Six impossible things


I drove down to Chicago yesterday with my father, and I let him pick the route. Instead of taking the freeway through Wisconsin, which I have done many times and which takes about 7 hours plus meal and gas stops, we drove down the west bank of the Mississippi. The first part, St. Paul to La Crescent via Highway 61, I’ve done many times; it’s a slower drive than the freeway, but prettier, and at La Crescent you can cross the river and pick up the freeway or continue down the east bank.

This time, we continued down the west bank. By that point, the river is wide and cluttered with islands and swampy areas, large parts of which were iced over. We passed several tugboats pushing barges downstream through sections of chopped-up ice, trying to beat winter and the river freezing over. In that section of the Mississippi, both banks are lined with river bluffs – steep, rocky, tree-covered hills that are the nearest thing to mountains that you can find in the Midwest for several hundred miles in any direction.

We’d had a serious cold snap this past week, so parts of the bluffs were covered with thick clumps of icicles where the water from the last rain had soaked into the top and poured out through cracks in the rock. Lots of that area is wildlife refuges, and we saw at least ten bald eagles – four in trees, two that practically buzzed the car, and a number of others at varying heights and distances.

After a couple of hours, we started passing through little river towns. Some of them had the slightly grimy look of a working port; some had clearly cleaned everything up for the tourists, and some were a kind of weird hybrid, with large car dealers who seemed to have nothing on the lot but shiny new pickup trucks, shiny new RVs, and ancient trade-in pickups and RVs, right next to a McDonalds, a quaint old storefront building in a style that was clearly from the 1800s but with suspiciously clean brickwork, and a church with an unreadable seal above the door in faded blue and peeling gold paint.

In one of those towns, I made…not so much a wrong turn as an unintended one, and ended up heading out of town on a county road instead of continuing down the Great River Road as intended. It was like unexpectedly ending up on another planet. The road had wound upward through town without being particularly noticeable, and we emerged on the sort of flattish rolling farmland that is familiar to anyone living in the Midwest, where you can see a thunderstorm coming two hours away. There was no sign of the river or the river bluffs, and I don’t think we’d gone even five miles. If we’d headed west, we’d have been in for several hundred miles of the same, the main difference being that the rolling would grow less and the flatness more through Nebraska until suddenly the Rocky Mountains show up on the western horizon (I’ve driven it; it is very, very long and very, very flat). But heading east, within five miles, we’d have been in the river bluffs and the partly-frozen river and the islands and marshes and the determined tugboats.

Landscape can change rapidly, or it can stay the same for a really long way. A lot of writers assume landscape of the type and scale they’re accustomed to: if they live where you can walk five miles and go from cliffs and rivers to empty farmland, that’s what they write; if they live where you have to go three hundred miles in any direction to see any change at all, that’s what their characters encounter.

And it is very difficult to give the feeling of the space and size of countryside, which affects how you get across whether it is changing rapidly or with excruciating slowness. If the characters have to travel a long distance with nothing happening, the pacing of the plot usually demands skipping lightly over many days, which means the reader can go from mountains to plains to coastal city in two pages, even if the text clearly says it took the characters a month or more. By the same token, characters who are only traveling for a day or two, but who have a very plot-dense and incident-heavy two days, can make the reader feel as if they must have covered hundreds of miles instead of five or ten. It’s a problem of style as well as pacing, and therefore something that each writer has to work out for him or herself…but first, as always, one must be aware that the problem exists.

  1. What an interesting description … particularly the clusters of icicles spurting out of the rocks.
    However, CBS was saying this morning, “November 8, 2014, 7:10 AM|A typhoon in the Pacific is expected to cause a massive polar vortex for much of the U.S. in the coming days. ” So I hope you and your father are safely under cover by now.

    Californians, almost universally, don’t know how to drive in snow. Heck, we forget over a period of months how to drive in rain, and a few recent rainstorms have littered the freeways with accidents.

  2. I’ve never thought of landscape being tied to pacing that way. Interesting!

  3. I grew up in Minnesota and have driven (many times) across Nebraska so I know what you mean about those landscapes. Now I’m in New Mexico and hiking in the mountains here everything can change just because you’ve gone around a corner from a north facing slope to a south facing slope. One minute it’s pondarosas, the next it’s cactus and juniper on a talus slope. Cottonwoods follow the river bottoms. But those are all micro-climate changes. Over the larger scale, if you drove so that you weren’t seeing the corners, say, driving across the state on I-40 you’d notice maybe two landscapes. Flat sparse grass on the east half and dramatic rock outcrops on the west.

  4. I love the description of the river. Hmmm… I don’t know if I think much about scenery changes here in Maryland. We have odd pockets of farmland or forest right next to developments so you’ll be driving along and all of a sudden these identical houses appear as if they’ve sprung up like mushrooms. In the towns there will be a street or two with buildings that have been around since the Civil War but if you turn a corner, there’s a Walmart, and a McDonalds. It can be a little jarring if you stop and think about it.

  5. “A lot of writers assume landscape of the type and scale they’re accustomed to.”

    And not only what they’re accustomed to in real life, but what they’re accustomed to read. There are notable and wonderful exceptions, but how many fantasy books are filled with the same mostly generic landscape as the last? It can be tempting to write more of the same, even though I grew up and lived in Southern California for 30 years.

    Landscape is bound up with weather. People say California doesn’t have seasons. It does, but they’re different than in other parts of the country, and some of them are pretty subtle. (Okay, fire season not so much, fire season is kind of extreme. But still, different.) But all our culture and media seem to portray this… I don’t even know what to call it. Euro-and-most-of-the-US-centric version of seasons? 🙂 When I’ve lived in other places, I’ve referred to their seasons as “picture book seasons.” So it’s tempting to regurgitate the generic into any novels I write. Especially since I don’t really want to write a California-esque fantasy landscape, either… The places I think of as having these generic attributes are specific places with specific landscape, but it isn’t a specificity I’m as familiar with. Be aware the problem exists, indeed.

    Oh, and Dorothy, to be fair, driving in the first rain of months and months is different than just driving in the rain. Oil builds up and roads are especially slick for the first rain.

    • The terse version is that California has two seasons: wet and dry. Or if you’re in Southern California, mudslide season and wildfire season.

      When I was young, Northern California had three seasons, which we can call spring, summer, and fall. I would observe graduate students coming out to Berkeley from the East, and they’d come in late August or early September and it would still be summer, and get hotter and hotter through October and November, and then around early December it would start to rain, and it would go on raining through March or so, and the Easterners would go on thinking “it’s fall.” And then suddenly the rain would stop, all the flowering plum trees along the Berkeley streets would burst into bloom, and it would be spring and the Easterners would go wacky … particularly the young male graduate students who would react by falling in love with the most unsuitable females they could find.

      Now, because of global warming, we get hardly any rain at all, we live in a tinder box, and the flowering trees still burst into bloom … in January.

      On the other hand, Lucy Kemnitzer once posted on USENET that her part of California had six or seven seasons, which she delineated by what was ripe and whether the Deadheads were in town.

      (Has anybody ever heard from Lucy? She dropped out of rasf-c when her husband died, and I haven’t heard a word since. I hope she’s okay, or at least coping.)

      • Her Livejournal is still active.

      • Yeah, my terse version is that Southern California has a lot more than mudslide season and wildfire season. Those are just the more obvious. Those are especially the only obvious ones to all the non-natives, but also to the natives who live in the city and have never lived next to a patch of non-irrigated land.

        I’m with Lucy, apparently?

        For starters, summer generally isn’t wildfire season. It can be, especially with global warming and extra dry years, but generally speaking the real fire season isn’t until October. You know it’s going to be BAD if it starts in the spring.

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