Earlier this week, Minnesota Public Radio replayed an interview with novelist Richard Ford, and some of his comments (around 23 minutes into the broadcast) got me thinking about landscape.
First off, landscape isn’t the same as setting. They overlap, of course, but one can tell an urban tale set in Denver, a rural tale set at a dude ranch twenty or forty miles west, or a story of aspiring ski stars set at a Canadian ski resort, and they’ll all have similar landscape, in the form of the Rocky Mountains.
Landscape, for my purposes, is a combination of the underlying geology – the rivers, hills, plains, lakes, mountains, etc. – and the way the land looks at the moment. Cultivated fields, lush forests, trees blackened by a recent wildfire or blown flat by a storm, a wasteland of stumps left by someone cutting acres of trees…all those are part of the landscape.
Setting includes landscape, but it also includes a lot more of what people have done on the landscape (as opposed to what they have done to the landscape, like digging canals or cutting trees). When you say a book is set in Paris, you’re including a lot more in that simple phrase than just the fact that the book is set in a city built on a broad river with some islands in it. You’re including political things – the country, the government at whatever time period you’ve chosen (and all the tensions with other governments that happen to be current), the language, the ethnic mix of people you’d expect to find. You’re including history, from the World Wars to Napoleon to the French Revolution and on back to Julius Ceasar’s Gallic wars. You’re including cultural stuff, from the food to the Louvre to the Moulin Rouge to customs to clothes.
From a writer’s perspective, landscape is a lot easier to make convincing adjustments to than setting, especially if we’re talking a fantasy or SF world that isn’t like Earth at all. I’ve solved several plot problems by inventing an impassable landscape feature (mountains, a river gorge, a swamp) and plunking it right where my characters were trying to go to avoid a difficulty (instead of facing it the way I wanted them to). Presto, they’re stuck doing what I want.
If I’d tried to do the same thing with setting, the ripple effect would mean changing all sorts of other things – at best, a heavy-duty rewrite; at worst, a completely different book. Of course, there’s a ripple effect from changing landscape, too, but it usually ripples out away from the story, into the Terra Incognita that the characters haven’t been to (so no rewriting) and aren’t going to go to ever (which was the point of inventing impassable mountains in the first place).
Landscape is something that different people react to in different ways. A lot of early settlers to the “big sky” country in Montana and the Great Plains went home after a few years because they couldn’t stand all that space; others found it gave them the sense of infinite possibility that Ford talks about in his interview. I have friends raised in cities who are acutely uncomfortable in rural areas, or going camping…and others who love it and who wouldn’t miss their annual trek to the Boundary Waters wilderness area.
That may seem obvious, but a writer has to think about it on three levels: the writer, the readers, and the characters.
Writers first need to be aware of their reaction to whatever landscape they’re using, and that others may not feel the same way, because without that awareness, it’s almost impossible to tweak what one is doing in the story, even if one knows that other people may not react the same way.
Next, the writer needs to think about whether their characters are similar or different – whether the wilderness the writer loves is something that his fussy scholar character would find untidy or even threatening, for instance. It’s also good to have different characters in a book have different reactions and comfort levels, even if those never quite come to the surface in obvious ways. The author may never explain why the London street-thief is wide awake in the woods all night while his companions, who’re used to camping out, snore away, but it’ll add to the characterization even if only on a subconscious level.
Finally, the writer needs to be aware that not all readers will react to a particular landscape the way the writer does. This means that the writer who sees “big sky” country as a land of infinite possibility may want to throw in a line or two somewhere to indicate this for readers who find that landscape agoraphobia-inducing, instead of just assuming that everybody who reads the story will get it because it is SO obvious. It’s obvious to the writer, but not necessarily to everyone else.