Monday, September 17, 2012

Landscape and Personality of Place

I have been thinking about landscape lately.  My next novel is set in San Francisco in the mid-nineteenth century, and I have begun delving into the historical backdrop of this place and time. My knowledge of American history is woefully lacking so I begin at the beginning: a fascinating book of comparative colonialism, exploring the divergent, as well as the similar, policies of the Spanish and English in the New World. From then on a history of the War of Independence and through to the Civil War. While my novel is set in San Francisco at a later period of American history, I feel that the landscape in which my characters will be moving is still very much a frontier; in order to adequately convey these individuals and how their attitudes are formed and molded, I need to understand from whence they have come, and what they have endured to get there. Many of the early settlers of the Barbary Coast came via boat from around Cape Horn or through the Panama Canal. Like many of their earlier compatriots they were coming to uncharted territory inhabited by often hostile indigenous populations. I am thinking most particularly about the personality of this place - and how, as a writer, I can make it come to life in such a way that it becomes an unforgettable part of the reading experience. So in consideration of the land itself I want to know what grows upon it and what does not, its shape, texture and terrain. The way the sky meets the land, the hazy mist of heat that sometimes clouds the intersection of two, the creatures that inhabit the landscape, and the seasons in which they can be found. Of course being a port city, also examining the intersection and interaction of all things maritime and terrestrial. This time encapsulates not only the gold frenzy, but also the great transcontinental railroad project in which the Central Union blasts miles and miles through seemingly impenetrable mountains. A time of giddy enthusiasm. I feel that the broader landscape and the new inhabitants' relationship to it and within it will become an emerging theme of this novel. However no matter where one's book is written, the descriptive power of the landscape should stimulate all senses, but ideally be inter-weaved through the narrative in such a way that it does not inhibit the forward movement of the plot or unduly weigh down momentum. Ultimately I want my reader to feel as if they are really there - immersed within this environment - to feel that the Barbary Coast in 1840 is as real to them as their own immediate neighborhood. To this end I ask myself the sensual questions: what does the sun feel like on his head? When the frost creeps beneath his rags how does it affect his way of walking? sleeping? What did he eat for breakfast and what did it taste like? What sounds were part of his normal routine? Clatter of carriage wheels? All of those mundane quotidian details that make up the sensory experience that we take for granted today has a corollary in the 1840's : and to depict them within the narrative is critical for this reader-immersion to take place. It is an exciting endeavor and I am gleefully anticipating the multitude of research avenues that will make this landscape come alive for me, and then, hopefully, for the reader.

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