A Sense of Place (Spiritwalker Monday 9)

I need to know where I stand.

That’s true in many different ways, along numerous axes, of which landscape is one.

Many years ago when I was writing the earliest attempts at Cold Magic, with its blended Afro-Celtic setting, I asked myself why not set the story in West Africa, perhaps at a seaport on the coast in this alternate universe? There were a number of reasons I decided against doing it this way, but the deciding factor was that I had (at that time) never set foot in West Africa and I have this thing–I wish I had a better word than thing–that I have to have a physical sense of the land in order to write it.

Given that much of the Jaran books are set in a steppe/plains setting with many nods to and borrowings from the history of the Mongols and other steppe peoples, you may wonder how I could then write Jaran?

That’s easy: The landscape is Wyoming, where I spent a summer during high school (at an astronomy camp, of all things).

Obviously it is not that the landscape IS Wyoming but rather than the plains/plateau landscape of the American west is the one I could draw from for the Jaran novels’ setting. In the same way, there is a little bit of London in Adurnam (Spiritwalker), and a bit of Puerto Rico in Expedition. The landscape of the Crossroads trilogy is a melange of the California Mediterranean climate, the Tierra Caliente of Guerrero (Mexico), Japan, and even Hawaii (although it is not an island setting), plus bits and pieces of the Oregon where I grew up, which is a far more varied landscape than many people realize who only think of its famous coast and the central Portland to Eugene river valley.

On Twitter, writer Susan Elizabeth Curnow (in response to me begging for a good topic for this week’s Spiritwalker Monday) asked me how the weathers and flowers of Hawaii influence my writing, which made me think about landscape and how much I feel the need to be grounded in place. Living in Hawaii (where I wrote all three volumes of the Crossroads trilogy) definitely influenced the novel in that there is very little cold weather, and the people who live in the Hundred call “cold” what others would call “warm.”

There is another way Place influences me. Before we moved to Hawaii, we lived in State College, Pennsylvania, aka Happy Valley, a place I never felt comfortable and certainly never loved (as, for instance, I loved the rural Willamette Valley of Oregon where I grew up) or felt any form of deep connection.

Hawaii has that sense of deep connection for me. If I walk out the door I am always happy to see the Waianai Mountains, and the clouds pouring over the Ko’olau Mountains, and the gulch, and the green, and the ever present vastness of the ocean that surrounds this old eroding extinct volcano.

So for me I thrive on a sense of place both in terms of needing to feel a physical sense of understanding the landscapes I’m writing about and to feel a physical sense of feeling well being about the landscape I live in.

I say this not to suggest that everyone else must feel this way, only that I do.

How much does a sense of place — in either of these ways or in some other way — figure into your writing? Or your reading?

7 thoughts on “A Sense of Place (Spiritwalker Monday 9)

  1. I don’t feel qualified to write about any real-world location that I haven’t personally visited – or rather, which I haven’t experienced fully enough to claim some sort of personal understanding about how things work there. Thus: I feel able to write about Australia and the UK, and that’s pretty much it – other places I’ve only visited briefly, and while I might be able to describe them in a physical sense, I wouldn’t be able to talk about what it’s like to live there with any authority.

    When it comes to making up fantastic settings, I tend to write from what I know, too, although it took me a while to realise that’s what I was doing. Growing up in Australia, my native sense of wilderness was one of gumtrees, flat, dry-grassed plains and a distinct lack of predatory wildlife, and as a consequence, that tends to be my default setting when it comes to writing fictional environments. Actually, now that I think about it, the lack of big animals is quite a major thing, because even though I love the idea of deer and panthers and so on, I’ve never lived in a place where you’d be likely to encounter them, and so I forget that they’re an option (and a likely one at that) in pre-industrial, non-urban landscapes. Because, I mean, pretty much the only big animals Australia has to offer are kangaroos, emu and crocodiles, none of which translate easily to fantasy settings – the former two because they’re too distinctively Aussie (and for some reason that, to me, is a disqualifying factor; I think because they’re unique creatures, found only in one place, so referencing them in an epic world would directly invoke the image of Australia for readers even when that’s not what I wanted to do – same goes for koalas and platypi) and the latter because I’m yet to write something set in the kind of place that a crocodile would inhabit.

    But, yeah: that actually raises some interesting thoughts about the animals we use to populate our fantasy stories, and why the default is for European animals (wolves, bears, deer, lions) even when we’re writing in non-European settings.

  2. I realize I was thinking specifically of secondary worlds (or secondary alternate histories, since the Spiritwalker books aren’t historical). I would feel hard pressed to set a story fully in London unless the narration was from the point of view of a visitor (although I’ve lived in London, I certainly don’t know it from the intense pov of someone who has lived there for many years or all his/her life).

    You make an excellent point about animal populations in fantasy (not to mention whether or not a writer even mentions wildlife if in a setting where there ought to be plenty of wildlife) and how the natural world interacts with the characters (or vice versa).

    The naturally growing food in any given area is another.

  3. A good writer can inculcate in me a sense of place for a place I never have been. However, having a good sense of place enriches and deepens a book for me. It helps me if I know something about the place, or the landscape, being invoked.

    As an example, I only really got a real feel for Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks *after* I moved to Minneapolis and could really connect to it as a reader.

    Visiting mountainous places in the Rockies made me prepared to really appreciate Courtney Schafer’s The Whitefire Crossing.

  4. A sense of place undoubtedly enriches reading and writing, transforming a simple description of an event into a multi-sensory narrative.

    One of the most profoundly moving and evocative place settings that I have experienced in literature is Susan Cooper’s setting of The Dark is Rising in Wales.

    Britain is an amazing island with a diverse landscape and ever-changing weather to match it; and I am blessed to live here. It is hard not to be inspired when going about the countryside or visiting a city. Many authors have indeed been inspired by Britiain and continue to weave its landscape into their work.

    It would be hard not to think of England when thinking of the Shire, and it comes as little surprise to find that Tolkien was influenced by landmarks around Oxford.

    Yet in other cases, like Deverry – which I am currently reading – the landscape is less tied to a particular place, but creates its own place none-the-less. I feel the places depicted in Crown of Stars works similarly, and what a much-cherished series.

  5. That’s a good point about familiarity of real world locations. I am not intimately familiar with London but I’ve been there enough (and lived there for six months) that I appreciate the depth of Ben Aaronovitch’s portrayal of the city in his series.

    But there are also secondary worlds I’ve visited that feel real to me, like Sherwood Smith’s Sartorias and Katharine Kerr’s Deverry.

  6. Sometimes it feels to me as if there are two Britains, the actual Britain and the literary “mythic” Britain of story, film, and people’s imaginations.

    I knew that the Shire reflects England but hadn’t realized that Tolkien was influenced by specific landmarks around Oxford. What are they?

  7. The BBC has an article here (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-oxfordshire-20894824) which names some of what inspired Tolkien. He even look names such as Buckland in Berkshire and the village of Brill is said to have inspired Bree. Bucklebury, also used in the Shire is coincidentally where the Duchess of Cambridge’s parents live. (The two Brtitains you describe almost collide!)

    We have the Normans to thank for the proliferation of Arthurian legend as far as I understand.

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