Landscape As Inspiration

I recently visited Mordor.

Bubbling pits of heated mud and crude oil, steaming pools of acidic water, sulphurous vapours permeating the air… This was as Mordor-like as if Tolkien himself had been here. Peter Jackson and his team visited more than twenty years ago, recording the sounds that the molten lava makes in the great chasm of Mount Doom for Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.

It was Rotorua, New Zealand, of course. Specifically, Wai-O-Tapu geothermal park at the southern end of the Okataina Volcanic Centre. A place I did not know existed as such, until I visited with my family before the dreaded virus shut down international travel.

Rua Pumahu crater with sign: This crater has a bottom of boiling hot mud. In recent history, an earth archway that linked the sides together was destroyed by the acidic steam coming from the bottom of the crater. The sounds from this crater were recorded to create Foley. These were the featured in scenes of Mordor in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy.
Volcanic crater at Wai-O-Tapu. Image by E.L.Gill

There is no doubt that New Zealand was a beautiful country in which to set the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies. More than 150 locations across the North and South Islands were used for filming, accessing some of the most visually arresting scenery in the world to represent Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Twenty years later, the attraction is still there.

The interesting thing, of course, is that Tolkien had never been to New Zealand. And in fact, it could be argued that the scenery of the move adaptations was altogether wrong.

Nevertheless, I loved my trip. It was only for 5 nights, meeting my family in Auckland while leaving the kids at home with their dad. My own father turns 60 this year, and I grew up on a diet of Tolkien, read by him, from the tender age of five. It was our adventure together, to see arguably some of the world’s best Middle Earth memorabilia. We were even able to walk through the rebuilt movie set of Hobbiton and talk about how my love for reading led to my love for writing. It was a satisfying holiday, one from the bucket list.

Reflecting on this trip brought up memories of other places I have visited that were either inspiration for, or perfectly fit, all kinds of stories. Places that you wander past, along or through, and you say, ‘I could picture so-and-so drinking tea here,’ or ‘what a place to land a ship,’ or ‘imagine whose feet have trod these same steps’. Every story has a setting. Some are fictional, others not. But in the same way we move through the world, characters do as well.

And so I ask: how do you choose where to set your story? Does the environment influence the plot or does the plot reflect the environment?

Which comes first?

For me, I believe it is the sum of my experiences across a variety of environments that provide inspiration for my settings. I almost always set my stories in fictional locations influenced by places I have been, or seen, or read about. It helps that I’ve done a lot of all of those. And whilst I can imagine a completely alien environment (influenced by literature, movies and gaming, of course), the day-to-day aspects of interacting with those environments is based on lived experience.

Some people are naturally creative. Me, I need something to work from. Thankfully, there are a lot of somethings out there.

I grew up in South-East England. History was everywhere we went and I took it for granted. My family always talked about the world around us, and I read a lot, and we travelled during the holidays. I stood on the Tintagel peninsula dreaming of Arthurian knights. I strode the moors of Jamaica Inn. I explored countless historical houses throughout Britain, as well as castles, ancient monasteries and Tudor taverns. Sat on the lonely pebble beaches of the Hebridean Islands, watching the sunset. Walked through Sherwood Forest searching for Robin Hood; scuba dived a wreck off Dover in the freezing English Channel. We visited France, Germany, Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, USA (New York), Egypt. A love for travel, for cultural diversity and history and landscape, was fostered in me. And continued ever since.

As a speculative fiction writer, I believe these experiences gave me a solid foundation upon which to build imagination. If I had never been to India, how could I describe the absolute menagerie of smells and sights and sounds that assault you from every side there, and extrapolate this experience to the cities of my imagination? Well, okay, I could read about it from other talented wordsmiths. But firsthand experience is like nothing else.

Here in Australia, the land is the story, the Dreaming of the Aboriginal peoples. Each hill you climb, each river you ford, they all have names, and a story, and custodians who remember them. You can travel the country based on story alone, if you wanted to.

I love this.

I love that landscape brings story, shapes story, inspires story.

I love that environment is such an essential component of story that you forget, sometimes, to consider it as an entity of its own.

So my challenge to you is: take a moment, next time you are out. Consider the variety of settings through which you travel just on a daily basis. Consider the people, animals and plants that inhabit them. Consider the physical, social, even emotional milieu of each setting.

I’d love if you were to consider a ‘landscape’ on a larger scale, but I know that we often find ourselves in small bubbles that can be hard to break out of. Plus, there’s the virus thing.

Nevertheless… Consider – what story is lurking?

Maybe, just maybe, you’ll be inspired.

Maybe you’ll find the next Mordor.

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