Thursday, October 30, 2008

Immersed in Setting

Immersion in Setting

There is a reason writers, like artists, gravitate to the beautiful parts of the world. The English poets had the Lake District, Hardy had his wild and desolate moors, Edward Abbey had the unspoiled American west, and Annie Dillard had Tinkers Creek in the Blue Ridge.
And, though I am not comparing myself to any of the above, here I am in Banff, in the Canadian Rockies, where I’m spending a few days before heading down to the World Fantasy Conference in Calgary.
This place is astonishing. I’ve spent two days with my mouth hanging open, saying Wow! And Whoa! And Sheesh! Would you look at that? (Words are my business, after all). We hiked through Johnston Canyon and took the gondola to the top of Sulphur Mountain, and walked over the Columbia Ice Fields on Athabasca Glacier. We hiked around Lake Louise and saw the sun bloody itself on Victoria Peak before sliding down behind.
In a place like this, you begin to realize the limitations of photography (especially as a tool in my hands). Focus on the Bow River snaking around sandbars, and the mountains disappear into the brilliant horizon. Focus on the mountains, and the river slides into shadow.
I worry that I can’t write well enough to capture this. I can’t even look hard enough to see it all. I wish I had better eyes. I wish I were a better writer. I wish I had more time and stamina so I could get at every secret place.
But the point is, this kind of natural beauty makes you flex and reflex your writing muscle, in order to get down what you can. I’ve been grabbing onto images—the light and shadow playing over the peaks as the sun moves across the sky, the unforgiving, translucent blue of glacier ice, the rippling shadow of a hawk as it crosses an alpine meadow. I breathe in the scent of pine in cold, clear air, hear the thunder of waterfalls and the creaking and complaining ice at the borders of streams. I feel the instability of wet clay and pebbles under my boots as I cross a moraine. I’m scratching notes, and trying to use all my senses, and remember what this place is like.
Art capture a truth that goes beyond the senses. It allows others to experience the emotion of being there, each in her own way.
I’m writing a series of fantasies set in the mountain queendom of the Fells, one of the fictional Seven Realms. The Seven Realms is a made up place. The books are not set in the Canadian Rockies, or Yellowstone, or any particular place I’ve been. But as Tolkien said, we write stories out of the leafmold of the mind. We need the raw materials, the convincing details, to tell lies that readers will believe. Sometimes it seems I have a memory like a sieve, yet experiences from long ago resurface in my fiction. The glitter and chatter of aspen leaves. The stink of sulphur from a hot spring. Nothing is wasted.
I’ve been spending a lot of time in the Writing Den lately, hammering out the first draft of Exiled Queen, and working on the revisions of Demon King. As Jane Yolen says, nothing happens until we get our butts in our chairs and write. There’s a guilty part of me that says I should be sitting in that chair, pounding out prose. You’ll sit there until you write a thousand words, Missy.
But a writer also has to keep a linkage to whatever reality she writes about. Reading and web-surfing are not enough. Sometimes our writing voice hoarsens from rebreathing the same air. It’s not enough to attend writing conferences, even those that focus on craft. Writing conferences are wonderful, but we writers risk becoming enthralled with our own cleverness. We are not each other’s audiences, after all. We need to get out into the real world and let the wind sling our hair around and get our hands dirty.


Nora MacFarlane said...

Sounds fantastic! I do hope you blog about the World Fantasy Conference. Have a great time soaking it all in!

Barbara Martin said...

Ahh, you went to my favourite place in Canada, and a second home to me during childhood summers. Banff National Park is truly a wonderful place to get your senses and soul settled. You descriptions fit perfectly. Bravo!