Creating Place in Your Speculative Novel – Rural Landscapes

This is the second part of my “creating place” series. Here is the first part cover urban landscapes. I studied Landscape Archaeology as a post-grad student and the core of the MA drummed home two points:

  • Urban landscapes are archaeological monuments in themselves that can tell us much about the past
  • In Europe, there is no such thing as a natural / virgin landscape

Though my interest leaned more towards urban landscapes and buildings, a large part of my Master’s course did focus on England’s landscape and its importance to the study of human activity in the past. It was then that I also developed further interest in environmental science and consequently, the effects of human actions on the landscape.

As with the post above on urbanism, as I am editing my novel I was struck by the generic nature of my rural descriptions. Here’s some trees, some fields, a slope, a beach etc. Since completing my Master’s I have really come to view the rural landscape in a completely different way. No longer do I thin “pretty green spaces, nice for a walk” I think “post medieval enclosure”, “Iron Age enclosure”, “medieval forest”, “relict ridge and furrow features”, “defensive position”, “choke point with Roman road”, “former monastic farm” etc… I’m looking at rural landscapes no longer for their beauty, but for their function – even something more elite designed to impress has a function (but I may come to elite landscapes later).

It is January 2014 and the UK is suffering some pretty horrific storms at the moment, including flooding. The south and west where I live is currently suffering horrifically. Though thankfully my town is not because there is no river running through it, just forty miles away begins the Somerset Levels. The first time I visited the area after starting my MA struck me that I no longer saw it as a natural landscape – but as a functional one and I could clearly “see” its flood marsh history. They are called the Somerset Levels for a reason and people who presently live there are seeing precisely what the “natural” landscape of their home looks like.

For contemporary fiction all you need is a basic idea of the landscape to tell you where they are “beach”, “field”, “hill”, “river / lake / pond” and maybe a few token references to nearby settlements in order to satisfy those who know the area or those who would be curious enough to look at a map to get a sense of where they are. Rural landscapes are not always as important as urban landscapes where creating a sense of the environment and conveying place, but when used to good effect you can fully immerse your reader into the text. A battle for example, really needs a sense of the setting. The correct season and weather can make it ominous. Sometimes in history, a battle’s result wasn’t always about the most men, the best trained, the best equipped, it is also about choosing the correct place the even have the battle. Take the Battle of Agincourt for example. The English forces were outnumbered 2:1, outgunned due to the presence of a greater number of French heavy cavalry yet it has gone down as the greatest battle in England’s history. Why? The English were uphill and upwind of the French and had more space to organise their lines. The French on the other hand were downhill and charging up a bottleneck. Their crossbows did not have the range of the English longbows (which with the elevation had even greater potential range). The landscape gave victory to Henry’s forces.

Much of my novel Dieu et mon Droit is set in towns and around elite landscapes. There is little rural description. The one notable example is this prelude to the final battle.

Five miles from the Palace and with London barely on the horizon, the Queen led the army off of the road, over a shallow hill and onto a vast plain stretching north and west across a series of low rises. Former farmland now abandoned, a process of reforestation had begun to the east curving away to the south and it stretched for several hundred yards.

At the edge of the woodland, oak and birch possibly no more than a few years old stretched forth to the heavens in aspiring to the heights of the older foliage. They climbed a shallow hill and descended onto the plain where the Queen ordered the army to stop. She did not address them but studied the landscape, analysing, and deconstructing.

‘Majesty?’ David trotted forward.

‘David,’ came her neutral reply.

‘Anything wrong ma’am?’

She hesitated, ‘No David. Everything is fine.’ Then she turned the horse quickly to face him. ‘Prepare the men. This is where we fight.’

Copyright MG Mason 2005. The Somerset Levels on a dry day. It’s reclaimed tidal salt marsh and prone to flooding

Never underestimate the value of simply going out into the field and examining your surroundings. Take a notebook and truly look beyond the superficial. Take the landscape as a whole and try if you can break it down into component parts. Look at individual elements – that strange looking hill, could it have formed naturally or was it the result of human engineering? Are they naturally formed waterleats or the remains of some Iron Age earthworks? Why is that clump of trees at point A rather than point B? Why does this road take that course? Is it because of ownership boundaries or because it was the most efficient way to cross the landscape?

Examine the “layers” that make up the present landscape, especially if you can visually date certain features. Do some research to understand why certain field boundaries are one shape whereas the group nearby are another shape (undoubtedly they were set out at different times).

You will not always need to do this, in fact most of the time it might be irrelevant and a “painting by numbers” approach is sufficient. For historical fiction you need to do your research and to understand the landscape theory behind the period of your setting. A castle will not be in a valley, border forts will be at choke points, villages will need access to water.

In following parts (don’t ask me when the next will be!) I am going to look at:

  • Landscapes of control (military defence and – more relevant to my present WIP – boundaries such as Roman Limes (lee-mays))
  • Interior settings
  • Elite landscapes (landscapes designed to impress)

Some books on the study of rural landscapes

Aston, M. 2003: Interpreting the Landscape from the Air. Stroud: Tempus
Bowden, M. 1999: Unravelling the Landscape: An Inquisitive Approach to Archaeology. Stroud: Tempus
Beresford, M.W. 1979: Medieval England: An Aerial Survey. Cambridge: University Press
Hoskins. W.G. 1955: The Making of the English Landscape. London: Hodder & Stoughton – quite twee but still an interesting read

5 responses to “Creating Place in Your Speculative Novel – Rural Landscapes”

  1. Another excellent post. I really like the questions you pose to the writer to ask themselves when in a landscape.

    I don’t have a background in archaeology, but natural resource management. So, while I completely agree that humans have altered just about every landscape they come across, so does everything else! Animals (current and historic) and natural processes change our landscape all the time (as your picture shows very clearly) on my a micro and macro scale (spatially and temporally).

    I love it when an author immerses me into a story that inhabits a place so well it feels like I’ve been there.

    1. Animals (current and historic) and natural processes change our landscape all the time (as your picture shows very clearly)

      For obvious reasons, I tend to “see” the human alterations far more than the natural processes – unless it is somewhere particularly dramatic like The Jurassic Coast. I guess with your background, it would be the opposite: far easier to identify and reconstruct the natural processes?

      I love it when an author immerses me into a story that inhabits a place so well it feels like I’ve been there.

      I often felt envious about how they managed it in the past but now I really understand just how they do it and why it is so important.

      And I’d guess, also because of the countries we live. You have far more natural, virgin landscapes and we have far more relict archaeological landscapes. It’s funny, whenever I hear an American say “I envy you, so much history” I reply with “I envy you, so much untouched open space” 🙂

  2. Another superb post on noticing the specifics of your chosen landscape. I still surprises me how much more one can take in, when one really stops, looks, and listens… and even smells. There is so much to use in nature – and the urban environment too – to create anchors to a particular place and make it come alive for readers. You only need one or two carefully identified details, but without these, readers are adrift in nondescript bland-land.

    1. I’ve been taking a mindfulness course the last few weeks and I think I may be able to incorporate some of these methods into my writing.

  3. […] One of my favourites is at Washford, just behind Cleeve Abbey. Somerset, from Exmoor to the Somerset Levels, is largely rural with a strong apple growing […]

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