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QUINTESSENCE

Landscape As Character

In the Same Space
 
House, coffeehouses, neighborhood: setting
That I see and where I walk; year after year.
 
I crafted you amid joy and amid sorrows:
Out of so much that happened, out of so many things.
 
And you've been wholly remade into feeling; for me.
 
–– C.P. Cavafy, 1929
 
When it comes to writing, geography––the physical surrounds and locale of our real or fictional story––is more than just placement. Geography is also environment, history, belonging, experience, metaphor. When a writer uses geography as more than part of the setting, or the physical grounding of the story, it is because the landscape the story is set in, or draws from, is a character of the narrative.
 
How is that, you might ask. A character?
 
How does a writer bring the hills, trees, or the wide flooding river into the story as a participant? Can the setting interact or influence our characters? Yes, it can. The poet understands, for example, the way the language of the river may be the language of loss. Or adventure. Or memory. A film might translate a script description of a moor into the brooding moments before a fatal encounter and the unspoken dread of our hero. We become engrossed in a book that is more about the secrets of a mountain than the adventurers who climbed it; or a memoir in which the four timbered walls of a house become a terrifying presence or a psychological mirror. Geography is landscape. From the weather, dwellings or structures, to the seasons at play. Writers turn these nonhuman elements, imagined or drawn from real life, into challenges and setbacks; pathways to feelings and decisions their characters face. The story of a final trip back home may begin with turning onto that familiar curve of the road, catching a glimpse of the faded paint on the door, the For Sale sign in the yard. The sea is as much a combatant or ally to the captain as the wind or the whale or the unreliable first mate.
 
As readers we understand more about characters from their relationship to their environment than we might perhaps garner from only their physical description. The farmer stands in the dry field in the dusty wind, legs splayed and arms crossed, searching the sky for a rain cloud. The rain falls but evaporates before it hits the thirsty earth. What do we feel if in desperation he waters a limp seedling with the sweat of his neckerchief?  What if he silently turns his back and walks away? The young girl on a stoop on the garbage-strewn street, drawing. What changes if we place this same girl, carrying a white fur muff, on a train traveling away from home, rocketing through a strange countryside? What if we place her instead at dusk in the kitchen of her grandparents' cottage and the kettle is whistling? Setting is all these details and geography is the landscape of these details. Geography in writing has a great pull on both the reader's memory and sentiment, and writers use this to bring vibrancy to their stories. Even a story that occurs in a single room, a cell over the course of a few hours, has geography. As readers we imagine everything beyond the cell that we do not see, we experience in this harrowing landscape of white walls all the emotions the character does.
 
When I began writing So Long As We're Together, I knew there were going to be three important landscapes in my story: a ramshackle lake cabin in the northern woods, a solitary late-night studio, and the stage––the performance venue of music. I felt all three landscapes had distinct qualities that uniquely impacted my singing twin sisters. These landscapes were vessels, like Greek amphora of old, gathering history, memory, and desire. I knew these landscapes would interact and interweave with the main characters, carrying voices of the past. Particularly their absent mother and a difficult history that was anything but forgotten. At one point I thought I might name the novel after the cabin, so significant was its role in the story. I soon understood it was the relationship between the sisters that framed everything, from the first night of rain in Seattle to the last sunset in northern Idaho. So Long As We're Together is a narrative of the ways we are and are not our shared experience and history. And ultimately, this is the landscape in which Andi and Marley find their footing.
 

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