Happy U.S. Independence Day! Later tonight, I’m going to kayak the Necanicum River to Seaside and hopefully emerge under a fantastic fireworks show. I’ll have that story soon. For now, I’d like to declare my own independence…from mediocre scene-setting.
I recently had an epiphany. While I have strengths as a writer–worldbuilding without infodumping, natural dialogue, good pacing and a clear voice–I have weaknesses as well. One of these is consistent characterization, which is why my rewrites tend to include an entire draft that’s just for making sure everybody’s arc is stable. Another one, however, is setting. I can conjure the visions in my head, and thanks to my Environmental Humanities training, I can describe a mundane landscape well enough. But The Valley of Steel is set in a fantastical United States, where rocs roam the skies and krakens teem in the lakes, where cities are built around endless waterfalls and time warps, where horse-lords gallop upside-down through gravity-reversed countryside.
Bottom line: Right now, I can’t combine the two skills of imagination and description where it counts. I need practice.
This is going to be the start of an effort I’ll hopefully return to frequently: the Imaginary Landscape Project. Here’s how it works. I will navigate to one of my favorite places on the internet, the Imaginary Landscapes subreddit (there is actually a whole network of these, called the Imaginary Network with an ironic lack of imagination). On this forum, ridiculously talented artists share the products of their minds for the whole web to enjoy. I will choose a picture that captures my fancy. Then, in however many hundred words it takes, I will describe the picture. Simple.
A thousand words is the going exchange rate for pictures. I’ll try my best not to take that many.
Here’s the picture I’ve selected for my first shot: “Forest” by Nikolay Razuev. I do not own this image. It is Razuev’s property.
May your burden be heavy, and your path long.
This was the most ancient curse of all, and it had swept up the young man, who did not know which god had pronounced it on him. His burden was the pack containing his worldly goods, the shield buckled over it, and a torch made from an oak branch. He lit the flame as the sunset receded. Night was rushing on.
The shadow passed over him while he halted on the rock outcrop, dizzy with the distance beneath him. Across the gap ahead, a bent, solitary tree stood bereft of leaves. One of its roots coiled out over the void.
Mist pooled in the woods far below his perch, a forest beneath a forest. The fog cloud rolled to the edge of the cliffs that loomed across from the rock flats where the path ran. Waterfalls, ribbons of blue as wide as castle towers, cascaded over the precipice crashed down between stone spires, then settled in for a whitewater run through the woods.
The young man traced the waterfalls to their peak. Warm lights crowned the cliffs, glowing in the rotunda huts set into the cliffs that made up the monastery village of Kroly. The fires taunted him, reminding him how far he was from warmth and light.
The setting sun turned the western horizon orange with its last rays. Cawing faintly–a distant, lonely sound–a massive flock of gulls, white as smoke, soared by, level with the torch. Soon they disappeared into the sunset, leaving the young man alone with the gnarled tree and the scrub grasses of his destination.
So, that’s my first effort. I was struck by how often I wanted to filter the description, forcing the reader to see it as the character in the scene, rather than as themselves. I catch a lot of that in second drafts. I suspect it comes from an uncertainty about letting an image stand on its own, given how ephemeral something like this usually is–especially in words.
I’m noticing now, as well, that this was mostly sight-based. I think I’ll do a city scene next, something with a more obvious flood of sensation to the ears, nose, and touch.