How to write landscape and place: Advice from Tristan Hughes
Advice on creating your own literary landscapes from Tristan Hughes, winner of the fiction category of the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards
While leafing through an old notebook a few months ago I found (beneath a list of titles for books that would never be written, like road signs pointing to the edges of cliffs) the following quotation from William Faulkner, underlined with at least ten vigorous strokes of my pen: ‘I discovered that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it.’ Now those book titles may have led nowhere, but that quotation certainly did.
You often hear people talk about the importance of a writer discovering their voice, but my own experience was that it was equally important to discover my place (and sometimes the one leads directly to the other). The two places where I was brought up – the Welsh island of Ynys Mon and northern Ontario - both felt very remote from the worlds of literature, which I somehow imagined existed far away in cities like New York or London or Paris. It took me a while to realise that the landscape outside my window was as rich and teeming with stories as any other. And if that seems obvious, then it’s worth remembering that it doesn’t always feel obvious, especially when you are just at the beginning of your writing life. And so, I think one of the best pieces of advice I could offer to any writer is this: be confident in your own ‘little postage stamp’; the most universal stories come from the most particular places.
Because I tend to write about my own little postage stamps, one of the things I constantly remind myself when I sit down at my desk is that although these might seem well-trodden ground to me and my characters, each step a reader takes into them is a small leap into the unknown. This is one of the great balancing acts of writing about a place in fiction (or any kind of writing): to know it in your bones and then imagine it as though you are seeing it for the first time. This has the excellent side effect of making you look afresh each time; writing about a landscape means I’m constantly discovering it anew, learning to see it with different eyes. Each story transforms the apparently familiar into a strange and new terrain. Writing is the best way I know to prolong wonder.
I think sometimes when we talk about writing place and landscape we can become slightly intimidated by scale – we think of whole authorial nations, like Bronte country or Hardy country – but, of course, the room you are sitting in is also a place, the street or field outside the window is a place, as are the village or estate or valley beyond the door. I find it easier to consider literary landscapes on a more intimate level – less as geographical expanses and more like one of the characters in the book, with their own changing moods and appearances, their quirks and oddities, and their backstories too. Landscapes are accumulations of history, dusty attics cluttered with the marks and relics of those that have lived in them. In describing a place, you are also telling its story.
One of the mistakes I frequently find myself making when writing about landscapes is the attempt to ‘get everything in’. For instance, if I happen to know all the names of the flowers in a field then I want to use them … every last one of them. And then, when I return to my computer screen, I’ll ask myself ‘but where is the field?’ When trying to evoke place it’s important to be able to see the woods and some of the trees. A sampling of those names might have worked better, and maybe a scent or two, and perhaps a few colours. The skill is in the selection and combination, in figuring out what you want your reader to see and smell and hear. Landscapes in literature are created not copied; they might bear some resemblance to what is outside your window, but they are not quite the same. Eudora Welty called place in fiction a ‘brimming frame’ in which there are two pictures - the author’s and the world’s; the trick, as she puts it, is to ‘make the reader see only one of the pictures – the author’s – under the pleasing illusion that it is the world’s.’
Hummingbird by Tristan Hughes is the winner of the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards 2018 in the category for Fiction, with a Sense of Place. See the full list of winners and shortlisted at the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards website.