Landscape and the Novel


How does the landscape contribute to the novel? Is it there as background? Is it a protagonist? Or is it a bit of both?

Some writers use the landscape as a means of reflecting a character’s feelings. Like the weather, the landscape can mirror mood. It can be stormy or threatening when the protagonist faces danger. It can be sunny when the character is happy.

Of course this sort of treatment has to be done lightly to avoid slipping into cliché, as you will know from your own reading. Or to avoid those purple patches that I was warned about years ago when I was a schoolgirl.

But the landscape can be a lot more than a reflection of emotions. It can be a protagonist in its own right and form a vital part of the plot. Do you need a drought, storm, cyclone or bushfire? Maybe not, but in fiction these can provide great challenges to overcome. For example, think of that terrible Oklahoma dust bowl in the United States in the depression years. This inspired great literature, including John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

Most Australians have probably witnessed a few bushfires. I have in my time, including one that was way too close for comfort. I’ve also been fascinated by the story a friend told me of his experiences a few years ago, when an entire town had to be evacuated onto the beach before a fire roared through the community. As I began writing my first novel, Stillwater Creek, I had in my head an image of a bushfire that I knew was going to play a part in the novel’s plotting. While I was writing the initial draft, the landscape evolved in my mind to such an extent that various aspects of it (the dust storm and especially the bushfire) became protagonists.

Landscapes can also be transcendental. They can transform the individual, through providing a connection to the universe that brings the character peace or by emphasising human frailty against the harshness of the environment. The novels of Patrick White provide many instances of characters who undergo mystical experiences through their connection to the physical world.

Have you heard of ‘gifts and surprises’ in relation to university assignments? This was a phrase used by some of our tutors when I was an undergraduate. I like to apply this term to fiction.

I plotted my first novel, Stillwater Creek, in an analytical fashion (I felt I had to with the six different viewpoints representing six different stories). But along the way all sorts of surprises emerged. The same thing happened with my two subsequent novels, The Indigo Sky and A Distant Land, and I’ve heard other novelists say the same.

While I have no idea where many of these surprises came from, I know the origin of the landscapes in the three books – both as background and as protagonist. My parents’ and grandparents’ stories, our travels up and down the east coast of Australia, and my own observations of the harsh realities of our environment and climate.

You too will have your unique store of landscape observations and will draw on it in your own distinctive way. May this bring you many ‘gifts and surprises’ - of the nicest possible kind.

This is a substantially revised version of my earlier post at http://writingnovelsinaustralia.com/2013/12/24/setting-in-your-novel-by-alison-booth/

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