Quo Vadis?

Where are you going, and do you know what it will be like when you get there? As to that, where are you now? These are questions writers must ask of their characters. Some writers are very skilled in delivering a nearly descriptionless story to the reader without the reader feeling as though anything at all were missing. The bulk of us scribblers don't usually attain that skill in word twistery, so we have to stick to the basics.

Description. The amount will vary from writer to writer, from place to place. There are no hard and fast rules about how much description you should use. If, for instance, I were to mention a cloak, well, pfft, everyone knows what a cloak looks like, and Jenny would be very daft to go on for a decent-sized paragraph about it when all she needed to say was, Rede slung his cloak on and stabbed the brooch home. Done and done. The reader, cheered by the thought that Rede will now be unlikely to freeze in the cold, reads on without much more thought. But if I were to introduce the reader to a very intricate and symbolically important crown, I would be justified in taking some time off from the rest of the plot to inform the reader of what the crown looks like. The writer just has to know his priorities, and keep in mind what the reader needs to know and (also important) what the reader can put up with.

But the main thrust of my post today (this evening, rather) is about landscape. I spent an entire post a short white ago on weather, and knowing your weather where you are writing about. But equally as important, if not even more so, is knowing what your landscape looks like. Some people are good at this: landscapes spring into their minds without any help. ("Well, hurrah for you.") I know I'm not like this. Landscapes emerge as vague images, often in the form of heath (very boring), and it is with supreme effort that I remind my imagination that landscapes come in wildly changing forms and I need to be realistic. So Jenny, on one of those long Saturday afternoons in which nothing else was pressing her, flung herself into her chair and took the time to look up all those curious English terms for different landscapes. She had some surprises. She had some nasty shocks. She had an ache in her wrist by the time she was done writing in her Things Various English notebook. Here is what she managed to cull together:

Beck: (North England) a brook, especially a swiftly-running on, with steep banks; often running through "gills."
Burn: (Scotland, North England) a stream or rivulet from large streams to small rivers; "burna," "brunna," "bourne." - So Guy of Gisbourne is obviously Guy of the Gis Stream, which sounds dumb.
Carr: an area of fen or bog in which scrub, usually willow, has established itself.
Cirque: a bowl-shaped, steep-walled mountain basin caused by glacial movement; often containing a small round lake.
Coombe: a narrow valley or deep hollow, especially one enclosed on all but one side; "cwm," "combe."
Copse: a thicket of small trees or bushes; a small wood; "coppice."
Dale: (Yorkshire, Cumbria) an open, broad valley, usually in an area of low hills.
Dell: a small, wooded valley, vale; depression in the earth.
Down: (Norse) open, rolling upland chalk country with fairly smooth grassy slopes; from the Norse "dun" for "hill."
Fell: (Scotland, North England) a tract of upland moor, pasture, or thicket; a highland plateau.
Fen: low wetland, rich marsh.
Gill: (Yorkshire, Cumbria) a narrow valley; "ghyll."
Glen: a small, narrow, secluded U-shaped valley or gorge, often mountainous and wooded; Goidelic: gleann (Scottish/Irish Gaelic), gloin (Manx) - Brythonic: glyn (Welsh).
Hanger: a wood on a steep hillside, usually beech, growing on chalk in southern England.
Heath: a tract of level wasteland with sandy soil and scrubby vegetation; any member of the heather family.
Howe: (Scotland) a dell, a hollow.
Howe: (Norse) a hill, a knoll.
Massif: a cluster of hills, a compact portion of a mountain range containing one or more summits.
Moor: a very peaty tract of open wasteland, often overgrown with heath, common in high altitudes where drainage is poor.
Scar: a rocky cliff; a low or submerged rock in the sea.
Scree: a steep mass of rocky debris caused by landslides at the foot of a mountain; "talus."
Shaw: a strip of woodland between 15 and 50 feet wide.
Strath: (Scotland) a wide river valley; ystrad (Welsh).
Tarn: a small mountain lake or pool, usually in a cirque.
Tor: a rocky pinnacle; a bare peak of rocky mountain of hill; also the hill itself.
Upland: a range of hills or elevated mountainous plateaus.

This is, of course, a very short and slightly incomplete list. Many terms are merely repeats of others, used in different locations. But it is nice to know that when someone is talking about a glen, they aren't talking about a meadow (which was the impression I always got) by a deep gash in the ground covered in trees and moss with a river running through the bottom of it. So the moral of the story is to know where your characters are (vigilance, that's a virtue, right?) and be sure you are using the correct terms. These are obviously English terms. Know your countryside and the countrysides terms.

A caveat. Don't overwhelm the reader with terms. If I were to say of one of my Welsh characters, He dismounted and climbed down into the cwm with his hatchet in hand, the dark wolf-hackled shape of the coppice looming in front of him, how many people would know what I meant? It's fun to know the more obscure terms, "cwm" and "ghyll," but keep in mind the bulk of folk who are going to be reading. Don't lose them in a mass of overly period correct terminology. It would be far better for me to explain earlier on that my character was headed to the coppice to fell trees for fence making (this gives the reader an idea that a coppice is a stand of trees, at the very least), and I can use the perfectly acceptable term "combe" which the reader will at least vaguely be able to relate to, more so as I describe it detail as I move along.

But these terms can be used as spice! Spices aren't meant to be dumped on, but used wisely and sparingly to add flavour. Know your countryside, and know when to throw in a word your readers may not have heard before. Expand their minds and teach them too.

3 ripostes:

  1. Another awesome post! Thanks for sharing all these terms. I too struggle with having variety in my landscape. My characters seem to always be either in a forest, a sandy desert, or a beach... far too cliche. Now I can't wait for them to climb a scree and stumble upon a pristine, hidden cirque!

    ~ Liz

  2. And now I get to snitch your list without having done any of the work. Huzzah! (Hey, I study other stuff...!)

  3. Thanks, Liz! As I told my Uncle Raymond, they say the grass is always greener on the other side...but the grass really is greener in England. :P The countrysides and the people who live in them are so varying that my little post is inadequate to give you a good arsenal of landscapes, but it's a start. I've been studying this sort of thing for years, and even I hardly know anything.

    It's the Atlantic Ocean. Darn thing gets in the way.