Landscape, Memory, Imagination.
I grew up reading classic English children’s books: Winnie-the-Pooh, first, and later The Wind in the Willows, and Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series, and far too many others to list. My favourites—now and then—have a certain commonality: they are rooted deeply in the landscape of the story. As an adult, when I consider the worlds created by my favourite fantasy writers—Tolkien, Guy Gavriel Kay, Ursula K LeGuin, Charles de Lint, Elizabeth Lynn—they too are deeply connected to their settings. More than that, the landscapes of their worlds work for me on a deep, visceral level. They’re right.
I also grew up roaming the fields and woods surrounding my tiny southern Ontario town, in the days when children of eight or nine could do that, unsupervised, and no-one worried. Doing that, I absorbed the ecology of the world around me: what trees grew where, when the toads returned to the ponds to mate, when and where birds nested. I saw and felt the interconnectedness of soil and water and the life it supported. I can’t not know that: it’s one of the ways I translate and make sense of the world, whether I’m in Canada or England or the Tibetan Plateau. Inevitably, I bring that way of understanding both to the books I write and the books I read. When I read, whether the book is set in a created world or a version of the real one, whether it’s fantasy or historical fiction or science fiction, if the landscape is wrong, if the ecology doesn’t follow basic rules, the book doesn’t work for me. I doubt I’m the only reader who reacts this way.
In this passage from Charles DeLint’s Widdershins, it’s obvious to me he knows about forests, and how they change. It begins with the character walking through a grove of cathedral trees, huge trees like redwoods that block out sunlight below the canopy:
…down here the stillness is absolute except for my soft passage across a carpet of mulch.
There’s no undergrowth, so it’s easy to make my way…after a while I realize the tree trunks are getting smaller….I can start to see the upper canopies…with tiny glimpses of blue sky…There’s undergrowth now—ferns and weeds, bushes and saplings…
The ground starts to rise…I find myself looking out at…a patchwork of old farmland, separated by hedges, broken-down fences, and ragged tree lines.
When I read this, I know this is someone who understands how forests work, and the character’s experience feels right. This scene takes place outside of the real world, so it doesn’t matter what the trees and weeds and saplings are, just that once the trees begin to thin, letting light through, understory plants can grow, and young trees begin to sprout. The rules of the natural world are being followed. Had I been writing a similar scene in my analogue northern European world, I’d probably have named a tree or two, and perhaps one of the understory plants, just to anchor my characters more firmly in that landscape. But that’s not necessary. In ‘Betrayals’, the first section of Ursula K. LeGuin’s Four Ways to Forgiveness, which is not set on Earth, this passage both describes and evokes:
The banks of the irrigation canals slumped here and there and the waters of the river wandered free again, pooling and meandering, slowly washing the lands clean. The reeds grew, miles and miles of reeds bowing a little under the wind, under the cloud-shadows and the wings of long-legged birds.
Here, LeGuin is describing a small section of an ecosystem, a marsh reclaiming abandoned farmland. What this evokes for the reader will depend on that reader’s experience: for me, it’s the marshes of Big Creek, draining into Lake Erie, or the fens of Norfolk and Cambridgeshire. But it could be almost anywhere: a meandering river, reeds, clouds, long-legged birds. She paints an accurate picture, but non-specific, leaving the details to the reader’s imagination.
But what if you’re writing about a world completely different from Earth? Unless it’s been created by a god who is a micromanager on an epic scale, it’s still going to follow rules of natural selection, geography, climatology, and a bunch of other -ologies. (Also, assuming she’s a kind god, she’s not going to put a bird with a beak meant for crunching nuts and cones in the middle of a grassland with tiny seeds. Even wildly creative omnipotent creators should follow some rules, or their creations will suffer the consequences.)
My personal rule in creating worlds or describing a real one in a different time, is this: research the known, and build outward from it. What that will look like depends on if the world is a real one, for historical fiction, or a fantasy creation, or, as mine are, somewhere in-between.
Historical fiction very often gets it right, but not always. In the last couple of years, I’ve read descriptions of Welsh hillsides covered with rhododendrons in the 12th century (they are a Victorian introduction to the UK) and a book set in 18th century Appalachia that talked about the forest, but without either chestnut trees or passenger pigeons. Flora and fauna change; species are extirpated or introduced. River courses change, or are changed by human hands. Coastlines change, again either naturally or through drainage and seawalls.
Created worlds present their own challenges. In The Hobbit, a few things rankled for me even as a child: golf being mentioned, for one. It anchored the story to our world, setting it in some past time, and if that was the case, then everything else had to be consistent with that. But tobacco, mentioned in the first chapter, meant that contact with the American continents had been made. I didn’t like it; it was incongruous. (Tolkien must have realized the same thing at some point; in The Lord of the Rings, there is no coffee and no tobacco, the former disappearing completely and pipe-weed replacing tobacco. However, he left in potatoes, another New World crop, disappointingly.) Almost everything else is right, though, born of Tolkien’s own love for the British countryside, and it resonates for me, so I’ll forgive the minor errors.
I see another reason to solidly ground your world in its setting and landscape, though, especially if you are writing about a pre-industrial society. I am old enough to have heard first-hand the childhood memories of my grandparents, dating back to the 1880’s and 90’s, before radio, before television, before anything except books. Their awareness of the natural world, their ability to identify birds by song and sight and behavior; to distinguish between a vixen’s bark and dog fox’s; to know what trees were good for axe handles and which for basket-withies, or what niche in wood or field they would find a certain plant – these were natural to them, part of their heritage and upbringing. That awareness and integration is often sadly lacking in books set in past times or rural societies, real or imagined, I find, and it reduces my sense of reality, of verisimilitude, and thereby reduces my enjoyment of the book.
How do you find this knowledge? Sometimes Google can help, but books are better, in my opinion. My work-in-progress is partially set in an analogue of far northern Scotland, where I have been once. I’m starting with experience, but I also have spent time reading books on the natural and human history of the region, Madeleine Bunting’s Love of Country and John Lister-Kaye’s Gods of the Morning being two. By re-immersing myself in their vivid, detailed descriptions, I trigger my own memories and learn new things to include.
For things that aren’t part of my memories, I’m still drawn to books. Travel writers—from Marco Polo to Peter Mattheisson; Julius Caesar’s The Gallic War, Tacitus’s Agricola (the last two are more military, but there are still some interesting descriptions in there!) Writers who can evoke the feeling of a landscape are what I’m after: I can Google the specifics, the ecology and geology.
It is fiction we’re writing, and we’re never going to get every detail right. In addition, there will always be readers who think you’ve got it wrong even if you haven’t. For me, though, the important thing is to keep the reader in the story, not to jolt them out of their suspended disbelief by—well, mentioning potatoes in a story set in a quasi-England alongside elves and dwarves and hobbits, or a 12th century character hiding in a thicket of rhododendrons on the sides of Yr Wyddfa. There are more books than ever for readers to choose from, and attention spans are perhaps shorter. I want my world to draw them in and keep them there. I’ve been successful in this: many of my readers comment on how immersive my world-building is, how they felt it was right, and that’s what I’m aiming for. Attention to the details of landscape is a large part of why they feel that way.
Here is a small example, from my third book, Empire’s Exile. The first excerpt is the scene with the environmental aspects removed:
We picked our way down to the ruined fort. I looked around me. Buildings had crumbled, roofs and wooden stairs and doors gone into dust. I walked along the midline of the fort, to where I thought the headquarters should be.
Now here’s how it reads in the novel:
We picked our way down to the ruined fort. The wind blew steadily, keening through gaps in the stone. Small wildflowers grew on the walls, and lizards darted and froze among them, hunting insects. I looked around me. Buildings had crumbled, roofs and wooden stairs and doors gone to dust. I walked along the midline of the fort, to where I thought the headquarters should be.
The first is a description of what my character sees and does. The second anchors the scene in the immediate, bringing in senses other than sight, and adds to the mood of age and desertion. But – for readers who have walked among ruined stone buildings, in Rome or China or anywhere in the world, really – it will, I hope, evoke that experience. Wildflowers and wall lizards and wind are common to ruins, so it doesn’t matter that I am (purposely) not more precise.
I can’t suggest any guides or ‘how to’ books or sites: I learned by analyzing what books I really liked had in common. Once I realized it was fidelity to landscape and environment, I consciously began to include it.
My best advice is this: write creative non-fiction about your own environment. First, your real one. This exercise forces you to observe, pay attention to the natural world, and then you can transfer that awareness to your fictional setting. Then write about it, not as part of the story, but as background, including the same aspects you noticed in your real world. What direction is the wind from? What birds are seen and heard at dawn versus mid-day? What are the colours of wildflowers? Notice how and when these things are noticed by you, and write that awareness into your characters. Then it will sound and feel authentic, and your readers will pick up on that, and trust the world you are building even more.
Thank you Marian for the generous contribution! You can keep up with Marian at the following links: