I wrote one of my first novels when I was aged 8. It was called “Where the Wind Blows” and involved anthropomorphised animals on a bus. The bus went through the countryside picking up more characters. I abandoned it after about 30 hand-written pages as I had about the same number of characters and no idea of what they were doing.
It was inspired by two things: Watership Down and my school bus journey, in particular one place. We went through a place called Bedgebury Cross. It’s little more than a T-Junction with a few cottages and a field. However, as we continued from our stop towards Kilndown, we’d proceed into a wood (which I now have found out is called the excellent ‘Black Dog Wood’) and I loved how the surroundings changed. Gone was the view of country domestication: the cottages and fields and now we were in the wilderness of the wood.
Looking back now on Google maps, it doesn’t have the same effect, but to the 8 year old me it filled me with a life-long wanderlust of seeing how landscape changes, how you’d go over the next hill and find something different.
Several years later when I’d grown out of my Narnia phase and moved onto Tolkien, my internal wanderlust was piqued again. I loved how everywhere seemed so steeped in history. I’d never read a fantasy where the landscape felt so real, that felt like stepping from Bedgebury Cross into Black Dog Wood. There are few books that have done it since and mostly they have been older fantasy novels. Donaldson doesn’t do it, Eddings I think does (though I came to him late – but I think the wood where we first meet Barak has an element of it).
Now perhaps it’s just nostalgia or as I get older that my sense of wonder diminishes but I find few books that give me that same depth of landscape that Tolkien does.
If Geocaching has taught me anything, it is that places have multiple layers of history. That field that a famous battle took place, was also the place where two people made love under the stars, was also the place where mum lost the new camera’s lens cap that resulted in the row that blighted the holiday. And just around the corner is another place with an entirely different set of histories. In short, places have multiple stories, and for me at least, Tolkien is one of the few writers who can convey this, either through tone or style.
Part of the problem is the way 3rd person omniscient has fallen out of favour as a Point of View style. Instead, the fashion is for 1st person or 3rd person limited where we only know what the character knows. In many ways this is a good thing, as a three page infodump diversion from the main story can slow the plot down, but we lose those little flourishes of wanderlust.
The other is that there is a preference for description to only focus on that which is needed for the story. Someone described it to me once as the author drawing the lines and letting the reader colour it in. I have to say that the best books are the ones that do this well. I hate it when the image I have in my head is ruined by the author adding a new piece of information that doesn’t match my internal vision (I have to say I was amazed when the first Harry Potter film came out and everyone I knew said their personal vision of Diagon Alley exactly matched that of the film). There’s an art form to this, with a lot of smoke and mirrors. Stephen King can describe a character in just a few words using this.
There are some great descriptive writers out there. Scott Lynch writes descriptions I could kill for, but even he hasn’t stirred that wanderlust in me. I think that due to America being a new country, a lot of American fantasy writers tend to make their landscapes very mono-history (places where only one thing of historical note ever took place). It’s one of the reasons George R R Martin doesn’t work or me. And as for British writers, well Mieville lost me (in a good way) in the history of Judah Low but not the landscape. Abercrombie can write fantastically rich characters but his locations (whilst good) don’t have the same sparkle for me.
Perhaps the closest writing today is Erikson, whose worlds have that sense of multiple-histories but whose grittiness means landscape doesn’t get embellished in the way Tolkien did.
I realise that this is a particular personal bugbear of mine, and I don’t expect my opinions to be widely held, if held at all. I want worlds with complex overlapping histories, with kinks and non-generic landscapes. I want stories that explore, not just always jump to a new section that starts “They reached their destination two days later…” But at the same time I don’t want to be bored with infodumps.
I don’t believe I have the answer to this bugbear, even in my own writing. I write third person limited so I’m unable to do those flourishes, and on the times I do, I usually cut them in editing for being boring infodumps. And as for description, I find most of it gets added in much later drafts as I find it’s not something that naturally pours out of me and only the bare bones makes it to the first draft.
But still, I crave that same wanderlust in my fiction that Black Dog Wood gave me.