Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Substituting landscapes

Probably one of the biggest challenges for a writer of historical fiction, or any fiction featuring a setting not intimately familiar to the author herself, is how to establish a palpable, credible texture to a landscape (or cityscape). This is why writers take so many trips! For the sake of this novel, I've traveled three times to France, but for other reasons--and in some cases several years ago--I've also traveled to England, to the Netherlands, and (briefly) to Belgium. All countries featured in the novel. Such feel-for-the-place excursions can be very useful. Many writers, however, whether for personal or economic reasons, cannot make tours of foreign places. So they rely on photographs and written accounts. A couple years ago I heard an interview on NPR with Debra Dean, author of The Madonnas of Leningrad. She said she relied entirely on maps and photographs when writing her novel, and didn't visit the city until after she'd finished! One writer I know likes to tell an anecdote about the reception for one of his published short stories, set in a far eastern country he'd never visited. He received an excited fan letter from a man who said that he especially appreciated the author's descriptions of the countryside. Surprised, the author reexamined his own story and, just as he expected, found that the story contained no real description of landscape at all. What he had done was to look up the names of a few tree indigenous to the region and inserted those names into the story.

Well, that's the minimalist approach, I guess. Not one I care to risk when working on a big, fat historical novel. However, while I've traveled in Holland I've never visited the Brabant province, where Vincent grew up. And Vincent, as you might suspect, was famously an explorer as a child, something of an amateur naturalist. How, I thought as I wrote the Brabant scenes, do I capture the essence of the landscape, especially as it looked in the nineteenth century? I have seen a few old photographs of Brabant and these helped immensely. But what finally carried the day for me is what I can only call "substitution." I grew up in a rural part of southern Maryland. Specifically, Accokeek, Maryland, and, even more specifically, the unique section of Accokeek known as Moyoane Reserve (pictured above), where all the lots are at least five acres and anyone who buys there must agree not to commercially develop that lot. Literally, I grew up in the woods. My "street" was a dirt road; my driveway was gravel. I spent a good deal of time wandering through those woods and walking along routes that led me past farms and fields and ponds. So when I needed to capture the feeling of what it's like for Vincent to be hunting turtles in a creek, or scrambling up a tree to snag a bird's nest, or hiking a dusty road, or watching a farmer sow his field, it was my memories of southern Maryland that fed my imagination, that gave veracity to the landscape and to Vincent's instinct for it. Whether I really captured 19th century Brabant in this strange, alchemical, substituting fashion I can't know. But I hope it has made those scenes physically convincing. At least as convincing as my friend's short story.

Extra note: A big shout of thanks to Erika Dreifus, and her great blog Practicing Writing, for generously giving a little publicity to Creating Van Gogh. For intelligent writing talk and timely updates, check out Practicing Writing.

(Photo credits: David Cremer and Elaine McVinney)


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