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Exploring Rural Landscape

Skogafoss, Iceland by pas le matinThe 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.

Alternating Rice Plots in the Bacson Valley in July by Hai Thinh HoangIdeally, 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.

Los Cuernos del Paine by Ian PlantYou 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.

Humboldt - Clover Paths by TreeClimberSometimes, 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.

Title image by Ian Plant.

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8 Comments

  1. J.R. Hall says:

    This is something that I seem to struggle with. I can see the place vividly in my head when I picture the characters interacting with each other or even completing tasks, but during the excitement of my writing I seem to leave out what the setting fully looks like.

    During my rewrites I have to go back and say “Can someone picture what I am seeing?”, and if not I add more detail. I just don’t want my story’s setting to be larger than my characters.

    • JR – my early drafts also have very little description, it’s something I add as go on.

      A good tip I picked up was to allow readers room to imagine. If something is not pertinent to the story you can let readers make up their own mind. You are trying to sketch an outline rather paint a watercolour. Of course, if it’s important that someone’s dress is blue later in the story, you need to set that up so not to pull the reader out the story because they always imagined a red dress.

      The only exception to this are the pieces where, if it was a movie, there would be this massive panning shot of a location not featuring any main characters in shot. if you imagine that in your head it’s probably an indicator you can spend a little bit of time on setting.

      Best of luck!

  2. […] latest article for Fantasy Faction is now live. In Exploring Rural Landscape I advocate writers getting out into the countryside to make their rural scenes be that more […]

  3. A.E. Marling says:

    For glittering glacial caves, for epic crevasses, for peaks so steep that not even snow can cling to it, for titan trees, for vine-infested ruins, I love National Geographic. Not certain where you thought that sentence was going to go, but it’s true. National Geographic has a delight of rich visuals. It’s my aim to bring some of them back to my readers, electrified by fantasy storytelling.

    To be fair, though, describing a scene in the depth that Tolkien does has its costs in pacing. A breath of setting like that would be great for a break in tension, a lull in between conflicts, but I would want to ensure first that my story has that action.

  4. Very true. I’m definitely an advocate of the “take a walk through the landscape” idea — it’s not just about what the terrain LOOKS like, but also what it’s like to move through it. Even a short trip will give you some idea of what parts are annoying, when you stop to catch your breath, and what it’s like to come up over a rise and see something new.

  5. Houston says:

    Great Article! Very inspiring!

  6. Brian says:

    Thanks for this, Adrian. I’m just now re-reading J.V. Jones’s Cavern of Black Ice, and I’m struck by how skillfully she handles the landscape of the clanholds and badlands in the opening chapters. Part of what makes her description so effective is her specificity: the grass is wolfgrass, the pines are pitch pines, etc.

  7. Tracy Falbe says:

    I love including landscapes in my fiction. To do this I draw upon my many experiences, especially in the Western U.S. I’ve sat on a green mountain side and gazed across a desert that seemed to have no end. I’ve stood in Redwood Groves and looked out on the Pacific. I’ve descended into caves with stunning mineral formations. I’ve hiked in the Sierra Nevada and waded through cold streams with salmon brushing my legs. As a little girl I’d wonder the rows of corn in the Midwest with my dog and feel like the only human in the world. It all goes into my imagination and comes out eventually in my writing.

    Because I can’t go everywhere, I also gain stimulation from National Geographic magazine. I’ve read it for years and it’s photos have taken me around the world. Looking at ancient objects in museums is very stimulating too.

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