Writing Landscape

This blog contains a little-finger dig at the Northwest Flower and Garden Festival. I used to be a regular at the February venue, looking forward to it from the bleak depths of a Seattle January. Getting a job with high work demands made this treat less of a priority. However as this winter has been particularly nasty-heavy-dark, I promised myself a half-day ticket, left work a little early, and visited the show.

My memories of the fabulous display gardens filled my throat like a craving when I walked through the convention center doors. I was excited, with plans to pick up just what I could carry—mostly bulbs or tubers. The door greeters smiled. The crowd, while rather thin as this was post day-trippers and before diners finished their downtown meals, looked just as excited as I was.

When you walk through the main door, the first sight is the display gardens. There is usually a smell, too, of scented blooms, lush fir foliage, moist compost—the heavenly odors for any gardener. No acrid stench of herbicides or pesticides. As I entered the maze of displays, I felt an immediate let down.

Expecting brilliance in color, sculpture, and surprise, there was nothing. The theme was countries around the world. So we had Japan, Germany, Italy and sustainable Northwest. I didn’t see Africa anywhere. Or the Middle East, including Egypt. Nothing representing Australia. The plantings were pedestrian: evergreens with no varigation, unremarkable pavings and water falls and the bulb of choice was endless narcissus. Or succulents. Or repetitive ground covers, like shamrock for Ireland.

Are you kidding me?

I heard a lot of ooohs and aaahs, and saw multiple phones aimed at a Japanese circle arch. But nothing knocked my socks off, like a ragged field of grass dotted with narcissus, a fabric couch and chair under a bower of corkscrew willow festooned with clematis. But that’s me. I like whimsy and winding paths, unique resting places like carven doug fir rounds, and color. Not garish dahlias or zinneas, but rainbow grasses, varigated hawthorn, cheek by jowl with evergreen culinary bay. Or the gray pale osmanthus. Or coral bark maple.

While I left disappointed over-all and did not join the crowd of iPhone photographers, I came away with a scented oriental lily bulb and—yes—dahlia tubers, because all of mine had died over the years.

This brings me around the goal of this blog, which is to address the importance of landscape in novels or short stories. For my own writing, I love description and I work hard at it, finding the correct words in the right order to do more than just ground the characters, but to provoke emotion.

In my own reading, I prefer detail. I like the author to surprise me with a phrase, or a noun. It’s easy to stumble over adjectives, and I struggle with that, but sometimes the right adjective in the right place makes a noun sing.

Description is emotion. Depending on the narrative point-of-view, character feelings light the stage. Because a close third person or first person POV is easiest, these are my favorite narration methods. I am a bit of a lazy writer. And again, with the exception of classic fiction from the early twentieth and nineteenth centuries, these are the narrative styles I prefer to read.

Landscape is character. What the character sees, smells, hears generates a reaction—or not, depending on the character’s nature. In science fiction and fantasy, landscape is doubly important; and more complex to convey. The seemingly nothing of space, the view from a hab or pod—if it has a window, or trees of an alternate world—if trees live at all, need skill to make these landscapes real to the reader.

Looking forward to writing the next novel beside my blooming lily.

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Writing Landscape — 2 Comments

  1. I was once told that of all the senses, memory is most closely tied to the sense of smell. Think of curry? Do you immediately go to hot, exotic Asian temples with a hint of mystery? Does the odor of disinfectant make you shiver in grief for the loss of a loved one in the ICU? How about clean sage and dry dust.

    I’ve been known to go back through a completed manuscript adding the sense of smell.

    My hubby on the other hand has a chronic sinus infection. He doesn’t smell much, but he has an eye for color. Finding the word for the exact shade of red adds a lot to a story for him.

  2. The first step in describing landscape is noticing landscape.

    Long walks help.

    But vacations or other trips may be required for that if your local clime doesn’t support the scenes you need, so sometimes you need second-hand