Exploring Rural Landscape
The quest is a hallmark of great fantasy fiction and some of the best quests see our heroes traverse a variety of locations before reaching their goal. When done well, the environment can become a character in its own right.
But all too often in writing fantasy, the environment can be bland, the landscape uniform. We’ve all read novels where our hero goes through a forest where all the trees were alike, or crossed plains where there was nothing as far as the eye could see. If you’ve spent time in the countryside, you’ll realise just how incorrect this is. Whilst the environment isn’t the priority in any scene, just think how much more memorable that scene would be if it was set in a memorable location.
Tolkien was the master of landscape. As this passage shows, in just a few sentences he gives us a complete three-sixty degree panorama:
“It was now as clear and far-seen as it had been veiled and misty when they stood upon the knoll of the Forest, which could now be seen rising pale and green out of the dark trees in the West . In that direction the land rose in wooded ridges, green, yellow, russet under the sun, beyond which lay the hidden valley of the Brandywine. To the South, over the line of the Withywindle, there was a distant glint like pale grass where the Brandywine River made a great loop in the lowlands and flowed away out of the knowledge of the hobbits. Northward beyond the dwindling downs the land ran away in flats and swellings of grey and green and pale earth-colours, until it faded into a featureless and shadowy distance. Eastward the Barrow-downs rose, ridge behind ridge into the morning, and vanished out of eyesight into a guess: it was no more than a guess of blue and a remote white glimmer blending with the hem of the sky, but it spoke to them, out of memory and old tales, of the high and distant mountains.” – Chapter 8, The Fellowship of the Ring
Tolkien’s beauty isn’t in stunning prose or in creating a vista the like of which we’ve never seen, but in creating a world that seems as real as the one around us. He demonstrates an understanding of countryside few have emulated. If you want to change that, have readers lost in the rural landscape you create, then you need to leave your desk or writing space and go on a little field trip.
Ideally, to get a good sense of rural landscape, you need to escape the cities – any sense of the land that once was has been developed into nothingness, or in those rare inner city rural areas is too confined to get any wider sense. The countryside presents its own problems as well, farming turns landscapes into a quilt of fields, woods into contained areas rather than big sprawling messes of trees.
What you really want is an area of countryside that is wild and wide enough for you to get a sense of what it would be like if man had never ventured here before. This doesn’t have to be too remote and there are stunning places to visit within an hour of most major cities.
High places tend to offer great vantage points, however the most interesting ones are on the border between two different types of terrain, such as between a plain and hills or heathland and forest.
You can learn so much by looking at the transition of landscape: how a wood naturally turns into grassland, how rivers meander round hills. The more places you visit, the more interesting locations for your stories you will gather. You’ll find places, probably quite mundane and not particularly scenic, that you’ll think perfect for scenes you are writing.
Walks can also be good and need not be as epic as the quests you are about to send your characters on. Not only are you getting some fresh air, stunning views and exercise, you’re also doing research! You are your own location scout. Even a short walk around a forest or wood can show you how nature is not uniform and give you ideas for making locations for your scenes seem more real and become more memorable. Take a camera with you and take photos from lots of different angles so you have photographic prompts ready for when you come to write your scene.
Sometimes, it’s just not possible to visit the types of environment you want to feature in your story, either through lack of funds or ill health. Image searches are great but the problem with them is that they tend focus on what the photographer wants to highlight, not give a complete picture of the landscape. However, online tools like Google Streetview are making it possible to virtually visit areas from the comfort of your desk. You might not get the sounds and smells of the environment but they can still enable you to get a lot of research done. It also means you can see what the view is like from the next hill without having to walk up it.
Remember that setting will always play second fiddle to character and plot, but it can help lift an entire scene and make it memorable. What are you waiting for? Go out there, explore and have your own adventure!
This article was originally posted on April 3, 2013.