The Imaginary Landscape Project, #2

Hey all! Sorry for being a bit off schedule with this one. My good friends Kate, Sean, Nick, and Kaitlin of Whitman fencing came down to visit, enjoy the beach, play some Numenera, and generally make my house the worst mark for a home invasion in all of Clatsop County. Great times were had.

I’m one week into my self-imposed three-week hiatus from The Valley of Steel, and I’ve got to tell you, I’m feeling the withdrawal. Despite ordering myself not to touch the manuscript, I’ve written out a page and a half of ideas to punch up and broaden the first twelve chapters: in a book like this, graceful exposition is a knife-edge balancing act. Too little, and the reader is at sea. Too much and they’re in a bog.

Since it’s been a few weeks, I thought it would be fun to return this week to my imaginary landscape writing practice, wherein I take an image from Reddit and describe it to hone my scene-setting skills. As promised, this week’s is a cityscape. It’s entitled “Celebration” by an artist known as Wangrays, who owns it in full. I own nothing.

The junks, laden with barrels of sweet wine or gunpowder for the fireworks, had to steer around the mud flats on their way into the city. The sailors–never more than two or three to a riverboat–would raise a cheer when they saw the city lights, a cheer all the revelers along the bank would answer. The workers reached the dock, hurriedly passed their cargo off to one of the Duchess’s harried chamberlains, and crossed the bridge to join the festivities.

It was Midsummer, the luckiest day of the year, and all the hundreds upon hundreds of gods smiled on the people of the castle town. Lanterns hung from every eave, shining warm light over the cobbled streets and the waterfront. Young and old alike streamed across the south bridge. Their voices, raised in song, carried over the still water, where barges bedecked with peonies sailed lazy circles through the canals.

This was a low town, with no building save the palace rising more than three stories above the moats. From anywhere along the streets, the entranced festival-goers could see the Duchess’s red tower, its walls soaring as high as the hawks that constantly flapped to and fro. The dark hills stood sentinel outside the boundaries of town, their summits on a level with the Lady’s chambers.

Those who crossed the south bridge and passed under the flags bearing the Duchess’s emblem, the crossed alder branches, encountered a world of scents and sounds so vivid it was as though they had been submerged. Spices and sizzling meats, fiddling, drumming, and the plucking of lyre strings. The footfalls and gestures of dancers fanned the warm air. Children compared the toys they’d won from a stiltwalker’s shell game, traded, traded back. Wine-soaked flirtations faded into the distance as young couples sought privacy in the shadows of gingko groves.

The throng thickened on the sunset bridge, the second of the three great arches, dwarfed only by the castle bridge. Pavilions on every side offered trays piled with meat and succulent fruit, while hawkers in bamboo booths cried the praises of exotic fabrics or tobacco leaves. A paper dragon wound its way toward the castle on dozens of pairs of legs. Inside the mouth, a man ate fire, then spat it out over the heads of the crowd to gasps of fear and admiration.

On every corner, a priest chanted out the benediction of one god or another. The pleasant hum of their droning voices blended with the music and the raucous shouts, as sturdy a base for the good fortune of Midsummer as the foundation of the castle itself. The festival tapestry of peace and good wishes fluttered high over the lake, where the warmth of the island of firelight met the cool of night in a gentle embrace.

That’s my best shot at that one. I love this picture. Next time, I think I’m going to try and work a bit of plot into the description–nothing earth-shattering, just a recognition that writing like this is not typically done in isolation.

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The Imaginary Landscape Project, #1

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.