While there are many types of Geography, the type that we will be discussing today is physical Geography that predominantly dictates the shape of the earth. To zone in even further, we’re looking at the Geomorphology…the origin and evolution of the topographic and bathymetric features created by physical, chemical or biological processes operating at or near the Earth's surface.
And you can thank the dictionary for that definition.
So let’s talk about your landscape! Cast aside your characters and your plot (we’ll deal with them later) to focus entirely on the shape of the land both reside upon.
The first thing to do, when focusing on creating a practical and consistent landscape, is to look at the narrative of your writing and find which terms you most often use when referring to your surroundings. Are your characters on land or sea? Are they in space, or underground? Given the nature of your plot, do your characters have to battle any elements? Do they often face wind, or ice? Do they constantly have to deal with the rain, or maybe they live in a desert? When you step back and look at the sub directions of your plot, you may find that you’ve already begun to set the preliminary boundaries for what your landscape should look like. The elements your characters face will have consequences on their surroundings. Earth is malleable, despite not initially appearing so. Ice, wind, rain, and heat all have effects upon the land and vegetation they touch. For the sake of covering most land masses, I’m going to dividing this article into several sections.
Wind is one of the more incredible forces at work, second perhaps only to water. If your characters are constantly dealing with wind in their face, you're going to find that the landscape surrounding them will have eroded surfaces. The earth will look carved, perhaps, with sediments often being deposited elsewhere. Likewise, the vegetation is going to be short and shrubby. Think tumbleweeds; the surroundings of deserts and the like. To that effect, you’re going to find that wind is one of the most important processes in environments that are arid, both hot and cold.
I’m going to go so far as to say that water is the strongest force when it comes to geomorphology. If your character is dealing with constant rain, you’re going to find that the landscape around them is heavily prone to fluvial landforms. Rivers will be bulging, rocks and earth eroding, with the ultimate effect being that your character will have to deal with everyone from alluvial fans, to oxbow lakes, to fluvial terraces. If your character lives on the water, perhaps in a house boat or a river village, what you’ll find is that many of the methods of travel and lifestyle are prevalent to change depending upon the flow of the water. If there is a drought, great swathes of previously unknown territories will be open for your character to explore, but they won’t particularly be safe. For all the water that has been transported, sediment has been transported to. The land on which your character rests will not be stable. There are great dangers in living on loose soil, such as mud slides and flooding. Be aware of this, particularly if your narrative talks about heavy rains that are beyond normal amounts. There are consequences to your words, and if you fail to enact them in the plots or sub plots you’ll start to lose your readers and a sense of realism.
If your character lives in a glacial area, you’re not doubt going to be interacting with ice. Ice, while often heavily constricted, is still quite powerful. As ice slowly begins to move down the sides of valleys or mountains, it will cause great gouges in the earth on which it sits. Likewise, it will be transporting sediment even if it is slower than water. What’s important to note is that often where you find these gouges, you will find very tall mountains. These effects take hundreds of thousands of years to complete, but their end result is that of a dominating landscape. Be aware that, even in a climate not prone to ice, gravity will push down on both terrestrial and submarine slopes. The debris from slopes will pile up at the base too. Some effects will be fast on soil, others slow. I would suggest that, if your timeline is going to pass so that a reader can view several thousand years, you use this sort of effect to really strengthen your narrative.
Let’s say that your character lives in an area that is volcanically active. No matter if the volcano is erupting or not, it will still have important effects on the landscape around which it sits. Active volcanoes are a bit like refresher buttons, constantly pumping in fresh nutrients into the soil and smothering old surfaces with everything from lava to tephra. In the end, this will cool, harden, and create new landforms for vegetation to sprout from. You’ll likewise have to deal with pyroclastic materials if your volcano is active. Don’t be fooled just because its ash instead of lava; both are killers and your character will have to stay clear of them The ash will move like lightning, carrying with it volcanic matter and deadly gasses. These surges can likewise cross water too, and the effects will be devastating. Water will evaporate, with heavier sediment dropping down and only lighter sediment staying on top. Propelled by a jet of newly created steam, the flow will travel at an even faster pace. Remember the ruins of Pompeii; you can utilize history in your narrative and create a more powerful landscape as a result.
So now that we’ve looked at four of the more powerful effects on geomorphology, how do we push this into our writing and create a better narrative? The fact of the matter is that we don’t, as bizarre as that may sound. You cannot create a powerful narrative by only reflecting one layer of the landscape alone. In order to truly have a more powerful prose, you need to build your landscape, much like you see earth built up and broken away in real life.
What I want you to do now, as a sort of precursor to the following articles on landscaping, is to make a map of the world in which your characters exist. This map will be topographical, and will mostly help you to highlight the highest and lowest points in the land as well as where water is found. Consider this the sort of rudimentary irons of your skeleton, upon which you can build muscle and character. From those three points alone, you can then move forward into the next section, which is climate and weather. From there, we’ll step into vegetation and finally broach how to direct the narrative fluidly in the last segment (i.e. we’ll explore your characters interactions with all three).
I hope this helped as the first step towards building a landscape!