Friday, 18 June 2021

The power of landscape - by Lu Hersey

In some ways it's obvious. You can't write a selkie story set in the Nevada desert - not easily, anyway. You need sea. Not only that, you need sea where there are grey seals, which limits you further. And somewhere the folklore allows for the possibility of selkies - and that really narrows it down. Perhaps most importantly, it has to be a landscape you can visualise clearly. Or it does for me. 

A defined landscape can hold the shape of a story. It's why Deep Water is set in North Cornwall, specifically between Port Isaac and Boscastle - an ancient and varied terrain which encompasses dramatic cliffs, a castle, high seas, caves, a witchcraft museum - and grey seals. Half my youth was spent there, backed up by year on year of visiting the area since. 

Maybe a clear idea of the setting is essential for all writers to carry a story along, but for me the importance is on another level. The landscape is a living, breathing thing from which the magic and folklore of the region has grown. Almost a character in its own right, as important as the other characters in the story. 

I want to know how any landscape I set a story in changes through the seasons and what I'll find there - whether it's when the basking sharks arrive in Cornwall, bitterns start booming on the Avalon marshes, or barley is harvested on the Marlborough hills. Any amount of detail to add to a store of background knowledge. A lot of it never gets used, but then neither does stuff you know about your characters either - like what their favourite colour would be, what their grandfather did for a living, or where they buy their shoes. Somehow it feels useful to know about it when you're writing. But is it essential to the reader? 

No. Of course not. But it does make a difference to the writing.

As a child I read two kinds of books. The ones my mother thought were awful and should be banned (she meant Enid Blyton) and the others. Children don't discriminate in the way you'd expect. For years, Enid Blyton won. It didn't matter to me (or not that much) that the background detail was highly inaccurate, the stories incredibly sexist and filled with the worst kind of bullies imaginable, because the main thing was the kids were busy catching gangs of criminals without any adults around (apart from unnamed servants who made picnics) and everything was tasting so much nicer out of doors. (I even tried ginger beer thanks to Enid. Hated it.)

But do I remember a single storyline from an Enid Blyton book? No, except one. An ancient copy of Enid Blyton's Nature Lover's Book I once came across, where the children's uncle took them on nature rambles each month to point out what you might find out in the countryside through the seasons. That knowledge stuck. Her most nerdy, possibly boring book, but the only one I could tell you anything about. 

So what about the other writers, the not Enids? Once I started reading more widely, I ended up enjoying many of them far more (though I would never admit it to my mother). My world expanded hugely through these books, way beyond catching crims and eating picnics outdoors. And unlike Enid's books, I still remember them. Philippa Pearce, Susan Cooper, Ursula Le Guin and Alan Garner (to name a few) presented whole new worlds, very real, rich with detail. Firmly fixed in landscapes you could really visualise, as integral as the characters were to the story. (Even fantasy landscapes like Earthsea - once read, you can never forget those islands and can only wish they were real so you could go there...)

In many ways, all writers could benefit from being more like Enid. Not caring particularly about content but sticking to a well trodden formula that spells success. Writing a rich landscape into your story doesn't often translate into financial gain. And these days, big publishing advances are usually reserved for TV celebrities (or people married into royalty) to write whatever they like. They are today's Enids.

Of course there are lots of very successful, non-celebrity writers whose books are filled with glorious landscapes ( I won't provide a list for fear of missing people out and offending writer friends) - but most of them have day jobs too. Depth and richness of story isn't as valued nearly as much as being a big name on TV.

A very kind reviewer once compared my writing to Susan Cooper's Greenwitch or Alan Garner's early novels. Landscape is integral to those books too. But would Alan Garner or Susan Cooper get published today? In times when everyone, including children, travel widely, does anyone care any more about the ground they're walking on - or the way magic and folklore is tied to that land? I really hope so. But on gloomy days I can't help wondering. 

Maybe landscape nerds are a dying breed and we face extinction. 

By Lu Hersey

PS. But in case that isn't happening just yet, if anyone's interested, a new edition of Deep Water is now available from lovely indie publisher Tangent Books (bookshops can order via Central Books too). It has an AMAZING cover, thanks to a fellow folklore enthusiast and talented artist, Rhi Wynter. And if I say so myself, the setting makes it perfect for a summer holiday read (especially somewhere by the sea). 

Alternatively you could buy another book written by one of the popular celebrity children's writers. There are lots of them, they're available everywhere - and probably not a landscape in sight.☺ 


Steve Gladwin said...

Lovely, Lu. It's certainly high time there was a revival of the importance of landscape. My own favourite first book was an Enid Blyton, 'Five Go To Smuggler's Top', a red hard-backed edition without a cover of my mum's and probably the first book she passed on. It actually was pretty evocative landscape wise. As a child I didn 't care, of course. I was just excited by the place and the feel and the wind and the secret passages and the smuggler's, andof course the adventure!!. I'd better stop!
'Off to the sea and the wind and the rain
Off to Craggy Tops'

LuWrites said...

Steve, it's possible I underestimate Enid's power of description - there were always smugglers' caves and dangerous cliff drops! I'd forgotten about those! Guess even Enid needed an atmospheric setting...(was going to do a more detailed landscape nerd piece for your selkie series btw!)

Rowena House said...

Landscape is where we meet in our imaginations. How can it not be essential?!? Loved your rugged Cornish coast. Spot on as a choice and for descriptions.