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Landscape must never be more active than the characters.
The more active the landscape, the more often character must return to that location. The more often we visit this place the more details become important, revealing details in metaphors becomes a powerful tool. Just passing through? Limit narrative to a few well-chosen, active details.
The climate or geographical features must add substantially to the plot, shape the society significantly, or color the character’s attitude toward life. DUNE, Ice worlds, Creepy old houses, Greeley’s use of Ireland even in Chicago books. In these cases the landscape IS a character in the book and should be developed with the same care.
Use all six senses in description--the five physical senses plus and emotional response. More real to the reader if Characters react to the location than a straight travelogue. (see sample #2 below). Look for more expressive words to use in your description. In this case a thesaurus is a wonderful tool. Indigo, cerulean, royal, and country all refer to blue but mean very different things. A blossom can be flat, trumpet, twisted, elongated, cushion, pompom, or a number of other shapes.
Involve your character in the description. The best way to describe a kitchen is to send in a man who has never been there before to make coffee. He will make note of what kind of person normally maintains this kitchen and be aware of things that do not fit--a too neat section of counter and freshly scrubbed floor when all else is a pig sty.
Even in travel writing we must put a character inside to give it life and dimension. A desert viewed from space has no impact upon the reader. A character stumbling through the emptiness with the sour taste of thirst in the back of his/her throat brings it to the forefront. (see sample #1 below) A child smelling fresh pastries in a Roman Plaze and then always associating that smell with colorful houses, the splashing fountain, the sound of Vespas on the cobblestones... Rather than try to describe a seascape put in someone from Iowa smelling the ocean for the first time. Pretty details should add to the complete picture, not just increase the word count.
When encountering something weird or strange, try a metaphor or simile. The rotting flower smelled worse than dog breath. The volcanic rocks twisted worse than Lance Burton’s imagination.
Describe a location using all five senses plus an emotional response. Try to limit your visual references to 2-4.
Do characters move through a landscape or observe it?
Does a character come into conflict with the landscape?
Does the landscape shape the character’s attitude?
How does the landscape reflect on the character’s society?
Is the landscape present in a substantial portion of the work?
Are metaphoric descriptions vivid enough to evoke an emotional response?
Are there too many metaphors and similes?
Have you put images in the same phrases or drawn more detail from different wording?
Sample scene for writing exercise #1:
Thin, clean air carried the pungent perfume of sagebrush and juniper. I halted my journey to savor an occasional waft of mint from irrigated fields. The sharp scents convinced my nose to cease protecting me from moisture laden pollutants and pollens. My head cleared and the world jumped closer. A kind of euphoria and freedom settled where pain and guilt had homesteaded.
I passed beyond evidence of man’s intrusion into the landscape. Hours rolled by. The ever-present wind dried my skin and wicked moisture from my mouth. Dust swirled around and invaded my pores, piling layers of grit on my teeth.
Thirst became an overwhelming sour taste in the back of my throat. My eyes ached from the blast of sunlight reflecting off volcanic outcroppings.
Sweat built up on the backs of my thighs, soaking the padding beneath my jarred rump. A rash prickled where the wind could not evaporate the moisture.
Deep in an arroyo the odor of death reminded me that I could be the next victim. Desperately I searched the sky for a hawk, a crow, or a vulture--some omen that life can emerge from death; that the end of this existence is a natural part of the cycle of life.
The sky was as lonely and vast as the landscape.
Empty echoes of the wind circled and circled, whispering to me of pain, tearing at my sense of self until there was nothing left by the arid essence of juniper, sage and dust.
A kind of peaceful solitude descended upon me. No one stood between me and my god and the decision I had to make.
Sample scene for writing exercise #2:
Michael perched on the edge of the fragile Louis XV chair. His thighs trembled from balancing his entire weight forward. If he dared sit back, even slightly, the wobbly antique would probably splinter. He shifted his feet restlessly, longing to stand up and pace the room. As nervous as he was, he’d probably trip over one of the long ruffles of the tablecloth. With his luck he’d knock off every delicate piece of porcelain from the table and land so heavily against the wall the Fragonards would fall onto the marble hearth.
He did not belong here. He could not afford to repair a scratch on the nine foot Steinway. How could he hope to support Mary in anything close to the style her parents had raised her.
He scraped his clammy palms against the trousers of his best suit. Damn, the crease faded with each stroke of his hands. What was keeping Mary’s father so long? Perhaps he didn’t like sitting in this overstuffed parlor that could have doubled as a sauna, any more than Michael did.<
Interesting stuff about the roots of writing fantasy. (On FAQ and Books: YA fantasy pages. Betsy James
SPECULATIONS magazine for writers who want to be read
These sites have good advice for all writers, beginner, just published, and old hands.
Everything you wanted to know about literary agents (Neil Gaiman's comments and letter from Teresa Neilsen Hayden)