“Your characters need an atmosphere in order to breathe.”
These lines from Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction textbook that I use in one of my courses at WWU have been echoing in my mind lately, as I ponder the crucial resonance of setting in a new novel I’m writing. Unfortunately also echoing is the difficulty many of my students experience in simply describing an outdoor location, let alone linking that landscape to a character’s emotions and life compass. In earlier literature, Nature was omnipresent—witness all the references in Shakespeare’s plays to weather and the way it mirrored important human concerns.
Now is the winter of discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried. (Richard III)
Men judge by the complexion of the sky
The state and inclination of the day…. (Richard II)
In our largely urban times, more insulated from the weather, many writers create characters who spend their scenes talking to each other in vague interior locations or generic cityscapes, so I challenge my students to write scenes in which characters are moving through an outdoor landscape while grappling with interior conflict. The kicker is to describe that landscape in terms that reflect an emotional state without explicitly “telling” the reader about the mood. “Swollen clouds hemorrhaged over the hillside” certainly imparts a different mood from “puffy clouds showered the thirsty hillside.”
But then I’m partial to stories that take me on a journey to new landscapes, just as in my own life I tire of sedentary pursuits and need to get outdoors for a hike or bike ride and fresh air. Most of my own novels have started with a powerful feeling about a place—whether experienced in my travels or extrapolated from a landscape collage. My first published novel, Wild Card Run, created a science fiction planet that drew on my few years living in Eastern Washington among vast wheat fields, then triggered by a summer day in my native Northwest Washington, working in a garden next to a field of tall grasses shimmering greens and golds in the wind. Having just seen a play about polygamous Mormons, I suddenly had an image of a planet of wheat fields with spinning windtowers, peopled with polyandrous farming folk (the pious matrons had multiple husbands), who had to obey strict Rules created by a ruling network of Cyber intelligences. The feeling of that landscape imbued all the creation of the cultures and personalities and conflicts that would be triggered by the return of a space-going “prodigal daughter” to her former home planet.
Other landscape inspirations are more easily explained: My suspense novel Islands grew from my experiences treasure hunting and teaching scuba diving off different Caribbean islands. To a person who’d grown up in the misty Pacific Northwest and a then-slow pace of life, suddenly landing on St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, the “New York of the Caribbean,” with its heat, vivid colors, and teeming crowds of tourists and natives, was an adrenaline jolt. I soaked up the impressions of landscape and culture, and the novel resonates with their inevitable interactions, as well as my newly-arrived heroine’s culture shock. There would be no story without that setting and its “weather” – physical and metaphorical.
Happily, other authors share my passion for place. I recently read a fantastic novel by fellow Book View Café author Pati Nagle, Kokopelli and the Virgin, set in New Mexico. It’s a region I’ve always wanted to visit, so I settled in for some armchair travels and wasn’t disappointed. Nagle’s story and spiritual/environmental themes are infused with a strong sense of place, vital to the plot and characters. She doesn’t just sprinkle in bits of local color, but opens a door to welcome us into the cultural and political realities of people who live there, and how such issues as water use and cultural preserves permeate their lives. Her landscapes are specific and visceral, and I can feel the heat and thirst of a hike into a dry canyon, understand the miracle of a suddenly-blooming arid hillside.
So, as I write this, I blink and I’m back from New Mexico’s heat to a darkening afternoon on the shore of Puget Sound, after a gloriously rainy, muddy hike in the Chuckanut rainforest foothills. Despite all my years of wanderlust, I’m definitely a native Northwesterner, and that identity informs much of who I am and what I write. Around here, we laugh at umbrellas and grab our Gore-Tex. Though I must admit, I’m looking forward to drying out in the sauna that Thor’s firing up in the backyard right now….
Another novel inspired by place, Sara’s newest from Book View Cafe will be released in print and ebook in March: THE ARIADNE CONNECTION. It’s a near-future thriller set in the Greek islands. “Technology triggers a deadly new plague. Can a healer find the cure?” The novel has received the CYGNUS Speculative Fiction Award.