Monday, September 28, 2009

Places that Resonate

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Watching the first episode of Ken Burns' new documentary series on America's National Parks I was struck not only by the beauty of the American wilderness but also its profound impact on people - and how that impact helped redefine a national consciousness. This got me thinking about the role of landscape and place in my own writing. I've blogged about this issue before but in my current WIP I'm interested in exploring the interaction between characters and the landscape portrayed.

I think evoking a landscape serves more that just decorative, thematic or descriptive purposes - I think it also helps reveal character. In my latest WIP when I considered the setting of my book I looked at a number of questions about such as:

How do my main characters feel about the landscape - are they at home or are they outsiders?

If one or more of them are at odds with the landscape - how can I use this to reveal inner depths or hidden aspects of my characters?

If landscape is to be a character - how will its mood evoke a sense of place and set the tone for the book?

How can I avoid cliches about the landscape and try and discover either a new perspective or a hidden sensibility that can add texture and dimensionality ( that even a word) to the book?

After watching the first part of Ken Burns' documentary (and after camping at the awe-inspiring Crater Lake a few weeks ago) I have a renewed respect for the joys of writing about the impact of landscape not just on our lives but on our souls. I'll be dusting off my copy of Landscape and Memory by Simon Schama and wrestling with all sorts of philosophical ruminations on the significance of landscape - but don't worry I haven't forgotten the most important maxim, never let landscape get in the way of a good story.
Some of the best thrillers and mysteries use a strong sense of place to establish mood, progress plot as well as reveal character. But what do you (as readers and writers) think should be some of the key considerations that an author should take into account regarding landscape and place? Are my questions on track or should I chuck my romantic sensibilities aside and consider something else?


  1. The first thing I thought was Phyllis A. Whitney, who traveled to the locations where she set her books to do research. I think her last book before she died was set in Harper's Ferry, VA.

    My only suggestion for key considerations is:

    * Do more than mention the name, especially if it's an unusual setting. I just read a book set in Nantucket, and the author just mentioned the name of the town. That was her nod to giving us a setting.

    * Try to capture the personality of the place. I don't think it should feel like it could be set anywhere else but there. I read a book set in Washington, DC, but the author did so little research that she could have set it in Los Angeles and had the same result. Very generic. At least she could have mentioned the Memorial Bridge or the Beltway.

    * Make sure it's part of the story and not overdone. I read a book set in Washington state where I was stationed. Yes, the author described the place in great detail--too much detail and not part of the story. Instead of being an interesting addition to the story, it highlighted the weaknesses in the story.

    Linda Adams

  2. I think always filtering it through a POV character, never using the objective voice...unless the novel is sweeping a la Lonesome Dove or Sometimes a Great Notion and the author's style is good enough to elevate the prose.

  3. Nice post, Clare. Setting is important to me. I grew up reading books where setting was king (Burroughs, Fleming, Wells, Tolkien, Bradbury, Brooks). And all of them had a common thread. The settings were “spooky”. So when I started writing, one of my first requirements was to always have a few spooky settings in each. Then press my characters into not only dealing with the conflict of the story, but also acting and reacting to the setting. I’ve placed my protagonist in a lost city atop the Peruvian Andes, a secret tunnel underneath the Kremlin, alone on a deserted highway at midnight in Northern Iraq, an abandoned penal colony on a remote island off the coast of Panama, a forgotten passage leading into the tomb of an Aztec emperor, and many other similar sites. These are the type of settings I love to read and write about.

  4. Linda - great tips. I totally agree and it can be a fine line between too little and too much! Jim, I believe that seeing landscape through a character's eyes is definitely preferable - especially as I'm not likely to write any sweeping Western epics! Joe, I too love mysterious foreign settings that evoke great atmosphere - I'm hoping I can capture some of that in my current WIP.

  5. Setting is very important to me. I live in Alaska where setting is everything, even if you're not aware of it. There are some places that require the setting to be a major part of the story. Here mountains encircle my city, and the Pacific laps at the shore of Cook Inlet. Belugas, Orcas and Moose abound. Bears and Bald Eagles, majestic as they are, are sometimes more of a nuisance than a wonder.
    With story written here the setting can sometimes kill just as easily as the bad guys. I have experienced temperatures ranging form 100 above zero to 70 below zero. Several times I have been sickened by a single day temperature shift from -40 to +50 in less than a 24 hour period. Things like that certainly play into a story. As does the fact that within ten minutes of Anchorage you can find yourself in a vast untamed wilderness.
    With my own setting always being on my mind, even when I write novels that involve other locales I still feel that setting is as important as the characters. For that matter it is one of the characters.

  6. By the way. The '-' seemed to shift wrong in my temperature shift reference. It was minus 40f to plus 50f (90 degrees in a day).

  7. All this beauty makes me want to shoot something huge.

  8. I think the National Forests and all of Nature should be preserved, especially in areas where the building has gone out of control. We need some trees and "green" stuff around...or we will go totally mad.