From the Yorkshire Moors in ‘Wuthering Heights‘ to the foggy twilight of Sherlock Holmes’ Edwardian London, landscapes conjure up all kinds of stories for us. In fiction, they can be so much more than just backdrop. Tolkein used them to illustrate the journey to the centre of Hell, contrasting the lush green of the Shire with the volcanic wastes of Mordor in The Lord of the Rings. The closer the hobbits get to the heart of evil, the more the landscape breaks down. Landscapes can even act as a separate character altogether.
At school, my English teacher taught us to describe landscapes in terms of what they looked like, but it is just as important to your readers to describe what they feel like too.
Mountains to me feel full of angry, untamed energy.
The South Downs, however, are softer, gentler hills, rolling and swelling banks of green pasture. They conjure an altogether different energy.
A rustic country lane in summer has a very different feeling to a city street in winter, and the stories that take place there are bound to be different.
Contrast can make your stories all the more interesting – think of that rustic country lane as an invading tank rumbles by. Think of the moment the Black Riders from Mordor cross the borders of the Shire, bringing war and evil with them.
The landscape in which you set your stories can enhance your theme, either with a sympathetic atmosphere, or by offering a shocking opposition to the action.
Today is a Bank Holiday in the UK, which means many people are off enjoying the fine weather and the beautiful countryside. If you have been out and about today, get out your writers notebook and describe the place you have visited. Seaside or countryside, what shape was it, what colours? What did it taste like, smell like? What weather was happening? What plants grew there, what trees, what animals inhabited it? Were there crowds of people, or just a lonely figure in the distance, perhaps walking a dog? Did you see a falcon wheeling in the sky, or a rat scrabbling about in the dustbins behind a convenience store? And what did this place make you feel? Was it pleasant, foreboding, exciting, relaxing or scary?
Salt this description, however rudimentary it may be, away, and think on it. What kinds of stories could happen in this environment? Who might live here? What problems might they face?
Next time you travel, even if it is only to the end of your road, consider the landscape you are in, and if you can get the chance, write about it. Let the stories the land around you brings bubble up. See where they take you.