Where do stories take place? While that questions may sound a bit daft, it is a legitimate consideration for any writing project. A copywriter has to consider the product in its native environment and in the context a prospect will both understand and recognize as the solution to their problem. A journalism considers the neighborhood and context in the wider world of the breaking news story. A poet considers the entire scene connected to the emotion in the poem. A novelist must paint in words the setting for their characters to live and act in.
Considering scenery in any written piece is more than just describing the street where you live, the ancient castle, the mountain pass, or indeed the dentist’s waiting room. It’s the sounds, the smells, and the feelings these places evoke in a reader’s response which give the thatched cottages their charm, the sterile waiting room its dread, or the office cubicle its overwhelming mediocrity. Scenery must not only give context but emotion. This combination is precisely what makes your copy compelling and your story scintillating.
In Gothic lit, the scenery is on a whole other level. The ruins hold secrets which endanger the characters who wander them, the graves don’t keep the dead hidden away, the portraits on the walls come alive, the mountains close around the castle and make it difficult to escape the dangers which lurk inside. Scenery lends credibility to the events in the novels and make readers more susceptible to the thrills and chills of the events. It also make it very applicable to other forms like film, stage, and even the modern theme park.
Now, as 21st century moderns, brought up on a steady diet of realism, news stories, fads, trends, and the connectivity across the globe, there may be some hesitation to put any scenery into writing unless the writer themselves has first-hand knowledge of it. Describing scenery with which we are familiar is one thing, but what if the familiar city street is not what inspires us? Well, you might answer, go find scenery which does inspire you. Traveling the world does indeed cure many maladies, ignorance being the chief amongst them, but in a COVID-ridden world that is not always possible. Even without a global pandemic in the mix, traveling the world isn’t always an option for a variety of reasons. Health, family, finances, and lack of vacation days can all hamper and impede our abilities to set forth and find the mountains or ocean shores we wish to write of. Should that stop us? Well, let’s look at one of my favorite Gothic writers, Ann Radcliffe.
She never entered the literary life, preferring to live quiet at home, writing by her fireside, not enjoying very good health, suffering severely from spasmodic asthma. Her life was so uneventful that one of her admirers, Christina Rossetti, who wanted to write her biography had to abandon the idea for want of material.Bonamy Dobree, Introduction to the 1980 Oxford World Classics Edition of The Mysteries of Udolpho
Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823) couldn’t travel either. Born into a middle-class family and married to a man of middling status, travel abroad was already a costly item. Only the very wealthy indeed could afford the expense or the risk of foreign travel. Remember, even white immigrants to the States had to “indenture” themselves to afford passage. Add to the budgetary constraints, Radcliffe’s constant ill health and war with France and it becomes an impossibility. Yet, she wrote The Mysteries of Udolpho, The Romance of the Forest, and The Italian all of which take place on a continent she never visited. All three novels, Udolpho especially, enjoyed great success both in the day in which they were written and long afterwards.
Udolpho takes place in two places: France and Italy. France is where the unassuming heroine, Emily St. Aubert is born and raised in the countryside of Gascony—just north of the Pyrenees and on the banks of the Garonne river. One of Radcliffe’s triumphs here is that most of the action takes place in the country and away from any large towns. Easy peasy. Nothing for anyone to “recognize” or claim wasn’t “realistic.” The cities where some of the events do take place were well-documented and would have been easy enough to describe, again, in a general way. If you look at the descriptions themselves, all are very generic. Enough to set the scene and enough to engage the reader’s imagination, but not enough to where you could travel to the spot where Emily lives and know it. In fact, most of the scenery (and there is a lot!) Radcliffe describes is in the same vein—generic, romantic, and just enough to fuel the imagination. The castle, from which the book gets its title, could describe any number of castle ruins in England, only set in the cliffs of Italy. Realism is a mere gloss—what matters is the reactions the characters have to the scenery and the events taking place in the scenery—not the historical accuracy of the scenery itself. The castle of Udolpho does not exist in real life nor indeed does Emily’s home in Gascony.
First-hand experience is a luxury and one which we have come to expect as a mark of good writing whether it is fictional or not. Yet, it is just that—a luxury. Not everyone has the inclination to go backpacking in southeast Asia or, indeed, the health for it. Not everyone can visit the Marrakesh in Morocco, the African savannah, or Mount Olympus for that matter. In fact, it’s largely due to high traffic in places like Egypt, Italy, and Greece the ancient wonders they contain are actually decomposing at a faster rate. Travel is nice, but it shouldn’t be a prerequisite for writing.
So, this begs the question of how writers like Radcliffe were able to describe scenery which they’d never seen. The answer, obvious to those of us who grew up on Barney the Dinosaur and Walt Disney, is imagination. Did Mrs. Radcliffe? Undoubtedly! Did it work? Well, read for yourself and be the judge. If you were to ask any of her contemporaries like John Keats, Sir Walter Scott, or Samuel Coleridge, however, the answer would have been a resounding yes.
Imagination does need something to work with, however, and this is where living in the 21st century really has its advantages because now, finding scenery to describe is as easy as a Google search. Mrs. Radcliffe had first-hand accounts from others who had traveled to the continent. Travel literature was a popular item in the eighteenth century, as demonstrated in the success of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. I doubt Daniel Defoe himself knew anything about tropical islands aside from Alexander Selkirk’s recounting of them but that didn’t stop him from writing either. Today, we have more than just newspapers, acquaintances, books, and imagination to guide us. We have streaming services, travel blogs, online travel journals, and digital photography. Writing scenery should be more exciting now than ever before—not more intimidating.
Whatever our own circumstances, we can find encouragement in Mrs. Radcliffe’s example. She had fewer resources than we do and yet her legacy continues even today. There are echoes of her work everywhere from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (whatever your views of Joss Whedon) to Kate Morton’s latest novel, to Enola Holmes. If she, living a retired life in the eighteenth century was able to make her mark with very little to go on, when what excuse is there for you or me? Are you allowing your own limited experience hamper your imagination? This, I will admit, is one of my own personal failings. I allow myself to be limited by what I have personally seen, felt, or done. That is part of why I emphasize so strongly the important of self-talk and of self-forgiveness.
If you aren’t sure of specifics, then don’t be specific, allow the reader to read their own experience into the story. If you can’t travel, don’t let that become a mental block—find material which does allow you to see what you want your setting to look like and go from there. Use empathy to form your characters and their reactions to the scenery you paint—let your reader see themselves in your characters’ shoes. Let them see themselves in your scenarios and let them feel the emotions you infuse into your writing. Reality has this habit of being more about what we perceive, and our emotions are part of that perception.
If the example of Shakespeare has taught us anything—it is there is a universality of human experience which surmounts all else—lack of first-hand experienced scenery included. If you can evoke that in your reader, then you could paint mountains and seas of any color in any corner of the world you wish. You can have princesses in castles in ancient China, you can have long-lost secrets in Cambodia, you can have cities rising from the Pacific Ocean, or indeed you can have doors to another world hidden in England.
The real barrier in all this isn’t the naysayers, the internet trolls, or the critics. All those can be a factor, particularly in a day and age when the court of public opinion is often just as damning as the court of law. The real barrier, however, are the limits you place on yourself and your own creative spirit. You are your biggest block to your own inspiration. So take the time to dream, take the time to research your scenery thoroughly, and then allow your own skill and confidence to the rest.
6 thoughts on “Writing Scenery: What to do When You Can’t Travel”
Great post! And I love your pics from England!
Thank you! Those pictures are from two separate trips I took back in 2015 with my family. We chased Arthur and Jane Austen on one (hence Tintagel) and we enjoyed the decadence of London on the other. Both hold very fond memories from me and I was just pleased I still had pictures from them to use in this post!
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Whoa, what an amazing and comprehensive post. To add onto this, I love ‘sketching’ with words, especially through description. And one drill that I’ve picked up and love is describing a place through the multiple characters’ viewpoints. A killer, for example, might favour the shadows, while a child might focus only on the colours. Great stuff. Thanks for this post!
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Stuart, thank you! Yes, viewpoint is especially important and can differ from character to character, particularly in The Mysteries of Udolpho. Emily St. Aubert, for instance, is moved by the romanticism of the mountains and scenes which move before her in the Pyrenees. Her love interest, Valencourt, has similar reactions to hers. Her aunt, however, is more moved by the decadence of the coastal cities and opulence of the more fashionable regions. Their reactions tell you a lot about their characters and how they meet their respective ends in the novel. Thanks for reading and responding!