Living Your Book: Terrain and Experiencing It

Maybe I’m presuming far too much, but in my experience, most writers tend not to be very physical people.  It seems like the doers of society are often too busy doing to take the time to write and the authors are often too busy authorizing to do!  Perhaps the best of us are those who find time for both.  🙂

This month we’ll be taking a look at something that it is difficult to get on without:  real life experience.  Want to find a way to really spice up your prose?  Here is a key question: Are you just satisfied with living inside your comfortable shell, only venturing out by proxy through your characters?  If so, I doubt your writing is as vivid and powerful as it otherwise could be.  You can unlock your potential, but it will be harder than you ever imagined…but also perhaps more rewarding!


Photo by the author.

The final post in this series is very similar to “Life on the March.”  You can only really learn about terrain by walking the ground, and if you are walking the ground, in any extensive way, you will learn about terrain whether you like it or not!  When we set out on foot for an adventure of our own, whatever myths we might have about the land around us are usually exploded by the tender slap of reality.  It is more than a matter of simple exertion, so merely being “in shape” doesn’t go far enough.   Observing the difference between our expectations of terrain and the inevitable reality of it underscores why it is so important for authors to not only learn facts about nature, but to experience it!

Cars, trains, and planes are all wonderful things.  They make our would a much smaller place, and that means that we are able to do more and go farther than our ancestors ever thought possible.  Like so much of our technology, though, they insulate us from reality.  In particular, they separate us from the land and leave us with no sense of what it really means to move over it.  Worse, if you’re like me and you happen to be a part-time gamer, this is reinforced by (excellent) games like Skyrim, Oblivion, Mass Effect, etc. where your character can run forever over virtually any type of terrain without you so much as breaking a sweat.  For many of us, if not most, all of that results in what amounts to the illusion of knowledge and the foolish self-confidence that comes with it.

Let me give you two quick examples that shaped my own realization of this, the latter of which happened as recently as Wednesday.

Below our house, there is a road that leads down from the gap and into the valley.  When it leaves the woods and passes into the fields, it flattens out quite a bit.  I drove this road for years on an almost daily basis, and if you asked me, I would have called it “flat” (if curvy).

Photo by the author.

That all changed the day my daughter convinced me to go for a bike ride down there.  What from a car seemed to be pretty level turned out to be a long, subtle and yet obvious incline.  Being on the bike made all the difference.  I was closer to the ground with nothing around me.  I could feel weight of gravity pulling me down hill (and holding me back on the way up!).  As I peddled and pushed, I saw the land in a whole new way–one that I didn’t particularly appreciate at the time!  Being thrust out of my comfort zone (if you’ll pardon the hackneyed expression) made me look at that little piece of the world in a whole new way.

Wednesday I had another surprise–this one was far more pleasant, but no less revealing.  I had already been reminded how being on the ground could change your perspective, but I had since been hiking so often that I took for granted that I “knew all that” already.  In the aftermath of the “monster storm” Sandy, I had been able to see steady snowfall on the mountains to the west-northwest from our home.  That area (particularly Cold Mountain) has become a favorite haunt of mine and so when an afternoon presented itself I decided to take off to get some miles in before dark. I thought I might cover one of my favorite hikes–about six miles around the mountain and back over a mowed ridge that offers spectacular views.  If I got the chance to see a little snow, so much the better!

Photo by the author.

As I drove higher and higher, it became clear that there was more than a “little snow.” It ended up varying between as little four inches to as much as two feet, depending on the drift patterns.  I unloaded and took off up a road to the top of the mountain, where I expected I could pick up the Appalachian Trail, if I wanted.  I knew that walking through fresh snow is obviously much harder than dry ground, but I figured I had allowed more than enough time and I knew the trail well.

I’ve covered the trail to the top many times now, and it is a nice warm up for the rest of the trip.  This time I found myself breathing hard, wet to the knees, and moving at about half speed.*   It was almost like being back at my heaviest weight, slogging up the hill for the first time.  It was steeper than it “should” be, and it made me far more tired than I expected.  I cut my trip short by about three miles to make sure I had plenty of time to make it back down the mountain before the road froze over for the night.  The snow made me view the terrain completely differently.  What I previously “knew” as one thing became something entirely different.  It was beautiful (just see the pictures in this post) and worth every drop of sweat, but it reminded me of what I’m really seeing in my mind’s eye when I write a scene about adventurers hiking through a snowy mountain pass.

In both of the cases above, I found that all of our technology had prevented me from understanding the land around me and what it meant to interact with it.  I look back on some of the stories I wrote before all this and I almost laugh.  There was so much missing!  So much taken for granted!  My characters will no longer just cruise across the landscape without comprehending it.  Some will appreciate it, others will hate it, but they will all know it.

As a remedy for this, I have no bullet points to offer.  This really is something that you have to experience.  The lessons learned are eye opening, and worth every step to your writing.


*Now, to anyone who has grown up in a very snowy area, this will be no news at all, but remember I’m originally from Georgia.  🙂

Other Posts in the “Living Your Book” Series

Photo by the author


About Brian

I am a history professor and author living with my family in the Virginia Mountains. It's hard to improve on a life like this!

Posted on November 2, 2012, in Brian Melton, Characters, Fantasy, Kendo, Speculative Fiction, Swordsmanship for Dummies, Writing Hints and Helps and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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