When we write, we locate our characters and action in particular places (unless we’re doing a “white room” dialogue, and those are usually ill-advised) but how do we find description for these wildly different locations?
A lot can be drawn from memory, of course, and from photographs and other records. We can read other people’s writing about a place, but that can lead us into derivative writing where we parrot the descriptions of another rather than devising our own.
And then there are maps.
Maps are amazing things – they compactly describe the layout of a location in a way which allows us to block out a scene very quickly. What they don’t do is give us much in the way of location flavour, the details of what a place is really like to be in.
I have a tendency to think of every place as flat until I visit it, and even then there’s a bias towards imagining locations as planes with markers on them for buildings and other landmarks, but that is profoundly flawed.
Consider a wood, or a forest. If you see a block of woodland on a map, you can surmise that that land is filled with trees. You can guess then that lines of sight will be difficult to find (a point reinforced if you’ve ever played disc golf in Oregon). There will be paths through the trees, more or less beaten down depending on the amount and the kind of traffic. There will be dips and clumps of bushes further obscuring the ground (again, a point reinforced if you’ve ever played disc golf round this neck of the, ahem, woods).
A field is going to be different. There will not be a lot of variation in the ground – it will be fairly flat, because otherwise it’s difficult to farm. There might be ditches or hedges at the edge of a field, but not much in the way of ground-obscuring landscape or hiding places.
But think of a moor, and what do you imagine? Moors seem flat – they look like fields – but their topology is a lot closer to that of a forest floor: I grew up in a town with a moor overlooking it, and that moor was once a forest, until the wood was taken for fuel and construction. Moorland may be shown on a map as being a smooth piece of landscape, but it’s wrinkled and folded to the point where it’s fractal: the closer you look, the more detail you find. There are gullies and rises and hidden ghylls that make it hard to find things. There are sections of Ilkley Moor that I’ve visited but once, because I’ve never been able to find the right path again*. I’ve never been as lost in a woodland unknown to me as I have on a moor I grew up on.
So remember this when you look at a map for a location – no matter how flat it may seem on paper, land is crinkly and strange.
[*] this is something that makes Rivendell or Brigadoon believable to me – even on a normal moor there are hidden places.