Setting In Your Novel, by Alison Booth
How does the landscape contribute to your novel? Is it there as background? Is it like a character? Or is it a bit of both?
Some writers use the landscape as a means of reflecting a character’s feelings. Like the weather, the landscape can mirror mood. It can be stormy or threatening when the protagonist faces danger. It can be sunny when the character is happy.
Of course this sort of treatment has to be done lightly to avoid slipping into cliché, as you will know from your own reading, or to avoid those purple patches that I was warned about years ago when I was a schoolgirl.
The landscape can be a lot more than a reflection of emotions. It can like a character in its own right and form a vital part of the plot. Do you need a drought, storm, cyclone or bushfire? Maybe not, but in fiction these can provide great challenges to overcome. For example, think of that terrible Oklahoma dust bowl in the United States in the depression years. This inspired great literature, including John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.
Most Australians have probably witnessed a few bushfires. I have in my time, including one that was too close for comfort. I’ve also been fascinated by the story a friend told me of his experiences a few years ago, when an entire village had to be evacuated onto the beach before a fire roared through the community. As I began writing my first novel, Stillwater Creek, I had in my head an image of a bushfire and I knew that this was going to play a part in the novel’s plotting before I’d met all of the characters. While I was writing the initial draft, the landscape evolved in my mind to such an extent that various aspects of it (the dust storm and especially the bushfire) became like characters. As such, they were vital to the plot.
Landscapes can also inspire transcendental experiences. They can transform the individual, be it through providing an intimation of the sublime, a connection to the universe that brings the character peace or by emphasising human frailty against the harshness of the environment. The novels of Patrick White provide many instances of characters who undergo mystical experiences through their connection to the physical world.
In your writing you can use the landscape in a variety of ways: as a catalyst for change, as a backdrop or as an anchor for the action, as a reflection of characters’ moods or as a contrast with their feelings, as a means of providing connection to something bigger than the human being…
You may find that you’ve been doing some of this unconsciously. Have you heard of ‘gifts and surprises’ in relation to university assignments? This was a phrase used by some of our tutors when I was an undergraduate. I like to apply this term to fiction.
I plotted my first novel, Stillwater Creek, in an analytical fashion (I felt I had to with the six different viewpoints representing six different stories). But along the way all sorts of surprises emerged. The same thing happened with my two subsequent novels, The Indigo Sky and A Distant Land, and I’ve heard other novelists say the same.
While I have no idea where many of these surprises came from, I know the origin of the landscapes in the three books – both as background and as being like characters. My parents’ and grandparents’ stories, our travels up and down the east coast of Australia, and my own observations of the harsh realities of our environment and climate, provided much material to draw upon.
You too will have your unique store of landscape observations and will draw on it in your own distinctive way.
In this, my last post for Writing Novels in Australia, I’d like to take the opportunity to wish you the best with your writing. May the New Year bring you many ‘gifts and surprises’ – of the nicest possible kind.
Alison Booth’s author website: www.alisonbooth.net
Writing Novels in Australia