Welcome to the second post in our new series, HERE BE DRAGONS, in which fantasy writer Andrew Couch, an American expat in Germany, brings our attention to the connection between fantasy writing and a life of international travel and residency. In the series opener, he pointed out how expat life in all of its glorious strangeness can be a feed for the fantasy writer’s imagination. And today? He talks about how one’s travels can inspire other-worldly landscapes.
Many people think that fantasy is a genre set apart, but fantasy stories, like those in any other genre, center on compelling characters and the struggles they face. As epic fantasy author Patrick Rothfuss once said:
If you want to write a fantasy story with Norse gods, sentient robots, and telepathic dinosaurs, you can do just that. Want to throw in a vampire and a lesbian unicorn while you’re at it? Go ahead. Nothing’s off limits. But the endless possibility of the genre is a trap. It’s easy to get distracted by the glittering props available to you and forget what you’re supposed to be doing: telling a good story.
Yet clearly there are some elements that set fantasy writing apart, and today I want to talk about one of them: landscapes. By “landscapes” I of course refer to the great swaths of nature not created by man. Often in fantasy writing, they are more than just a backdrop—they represent the force of primal nature that must be appeased or overcome. A landscape can also inform how a society is built and what drives it. (I will devote some time to urban-scapes and architecture in future posts.)
Obviously, setting plays a major part in other genres—see the works featured by JJ Marsh in her Location, Locution column—but I would argue that in fantasy writing, a great deal of time should be devoted to conjuring up a physical landscape for your make-believe world. Tolkien understood this very well. The Lord of the Rings would not have the same impact without those soaring mountain ranges.
“What are men to rocks and mountains?” —Jane Austen
Speaking of Lord of the Rings: After joining my wife in New Zealand during her round-the-world trip some years ago, I suddenly understood why Peter Jackson filmed his Lord of the Rings series in his native land. (Older TV series such as Xena: Warrior Princess and Disney’s Hercules were likewise filmed in New Zealand.) The landscape is so varied, so grand and… well…conducive to fantasy! I don’t know which portions of the Rings movies were filmed where, but I certainly had some ideas on our day through Fiordland National Park, which occupies the South Island’s southwest corner. This is the park surrounding Milford Sound, considered to be one of the world’s top travel destinations.
Due to my fear of flying, I never imagined I would make it as far as New Zealand (literally, half a world away)—but I’m so glad I did. After stopping in Queenstown, we took an overnight bus trip out to Milford Sound. Our bus was glass topped—our first hint of the wonders to come. Between Queenstown and the park entrance are lakes and rolling hills—pretty enough; but once you hit the edge of the park, the scenery becomes much more fantastic. We entered a dense beech forest that evoked visions of natural spirits. Then, after traversing the three valleys toward Milford, we caught sight of the mountains.
How to describe those mountains, which the early Queenstown settlers nicknamed The Remarkables? The human mind tries to makes sense of new experiences based on information it has already collected. For instance, we compare a new food to something we’ve already eaten or a a new piece of technology to X on steroids. But the mountains in Fiordland did not really compare to anything I’d seen before. Those I’d seen before were big, but somehow these were even bigger, and more awe-inspiring.
Sitting at the top of the Homer Tunnel gazing down into the valley, I could readily imagine ten thousand orcs (mythical humanoid creatures, the idea for which was developed by Tolkien) rushing up to besiege our bus of a dozen tourists.
We were surrounded on three sides by enormous sheer rock faces with what looked like trickles of water flowing down them, about a handspan wide. But then our guide informed us that these streams were a meter wide, which meant the mountains were not as close as I’d thought: they were a couple of miles away. So much bigger than I’d imagined! Um…my vision of ten thousand orcs began to seem rather pitiful.
Queenstown is in Otago, a region that opened up after gold was struck in the 1860s. This led to an influx of foreign miners, many of whom were goldrush veterans.
So while the landscape before me conjured up the feeling of Middle-earth, the setting for most of Tolkien’s fantasy writings, in reality most of the region’s early settlers were part of the Steam Age.
I didn’t consciously think about it during our tour, but now that I’m writing a series of fantasy novellas, Crossing the Dropline, I can see that my impressions of the mountains, along with my thoughts about the steam era, have fed into my imaginative process. For instance, Cloud Rock is a precious resource in the story. It powers flight and comes from only one region, called Beyond the Dropline, a harsh landscape that is both protected and contested by different groups. So the challenge becomes: can the power of Cloud Rock be harnessed outside of the Dropline?
South of the Dropline, raw ore [Cloud Rock] no longer had as much power. The real breakthrough of rotor technology was how to use it outside of the ranges. Natives had been floating with ore for centuries before the league explorers brought a sample back and engineers developed a way of refining and attuning it to the energy of Air in the rest of the world. That was only thirty years ago and hailed as the advent of powered flight. From that point on the Iron League had controlled the skies and had grown in influence. They had shifted from sea vessels to airships and proceeded to grow their trade empire around the Circle Sea and over the mountains into the west. Lors had heard on the news that the other nations were growing uncomfortable, but the news man had reassured them that the League diplomacy corps had everything under control.
At the mercy of nature
Nature is sometimes a primal force that characters in a fantasy story must overcome. My wife and I had perfect weather on our trip through Fiordland, but it was not hard to imagine a torrential storm ricocheting off the mountains and threatening to wash us over a steep cliff. In my novella series, the characters have to contend with not only human antagonists but with mountains that float in the sky:
He could see the front of the dark clouds out beyond the floating mountain peaks. An ever churning mass of dark clouds stacked into a formidable wall moving slowly away from them. Then another flash lit the sky and Lors saw what Arnhelm had been watching.
On top of the massive wall of clouds strode the figure of a bearded man. He loomed the size of one of the tall steel buildings in downtown Ironholme and was wrapped in a robe made of the clouds. He shone with a pale white light. Every step he took on the clouds caused sparks to ripple out and illuminate the sky.
“Storm giant,” Jason said from next to Lors. “Pretty, isn’t it?”
The first book only hints at it, but soon the spirits of the howling North will try to tempt the characters. They will become more present as the series develops.
* * *
I made the trip to Fjordland years before I started writing novellas, but the memory of those mountains continues to haunt—and inspire—me.
How about you? Do you have a landscape in mind you think will affect your writing one day, or perhaps already has? Let me know in the comments. Also, if you’ve been fantasizing about particular topics, let me know, and I’ll attempt to stretch my imagination to discuss in a future post.
Andrew Couch has been a fantasy book nut since childhood; he really has not grown up much since then. After struggling to write his own games for years, he is now creating fantastical worlds in a series of novellas that echo the TV shows, anime and role-playing games of his youth. Beyond fantasy he is an avid blogger and a world traveler who resides in Germany. To learn more about Andrew, check out his blog, Grounded Traveler, and follow him on Twitter: @groundedtravelr.
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