Monday, March 05, 2007

Wild Country

near Red Deer, Alberta.
photo by Darwin Wiggett.

Quest stories usually involve travelling, across continents, though grasslands, endless swamps, deserts, mountain passes, strange forests, through caverns and and abandoned cities.

Inhabited by fierce tribes and fearsome beasts, and dangers both magical and real.
Heroes assisted by traveller's tales, tattered maps, chance-met guides, mysterious strangers, prophesy, instinct and fate.
The classic metaphor for the internal struggle and development.
But when you come down to it, a lot of the journey involves the mundane details of walking/riding and making camp, building fire, eating rations, rolling into blankets or sentry duty.
This alternates, of course, with confrontation with whatever inhibitions the landscape throws at the pilgrim and his assorted companions.
Most writers are very good at providing us with dramatic episodes of strange, dreadful creatures and topographical challenges - the swamp monsters, the trail that ends at a blank wall.
It may be just me, but I sometimes feel they neglect, other than passing reference to the stone someone rolls an ankle on in the middle of a stream - to necessitate making camp or explain a subsequent fever - to envelop the reader with a sense of the journey itself, the alert awareness, the constant assessment, the search for sign, the choices, the curiosity, one feels when travelling strange country.
One does not just trudge from point A to point B.


Ric said...

But does minutae of making camp further the story along? When younger (like 12), the rote descriptions of Jack London's heroes fascinated me. Now, not so much.

I can understand your desire to get an emotional feel for the character - but there is a fine line between scene by scene reporting, accounting for every second, and the development of skills necessary to complete the quest.

anna said...

I am laughing at Ric's comment.
I used to love the romance of this idea of trekking. Mine usually involved Asia and deserts. Just the thought of such an adventure now gives me a headache.

BTW I have all my actors in place re yesterday's post. when I submit I shall be sure to give strict guidelines who the main characters shall be.

Bernita said...

Knew I hadn't expressed myself very well.
No, Ric, I get tired of making camp scenes, especially when everyone sits around like boy scouts and camp fire girls. They are often used as the opportunity for reflection and comment on skills, etc, because there's a belief that the characters can't walk and chew gum at the same time.
I prefer the ephiphanies to come during the trek, not just the major challenges but the minor ones too.
There's a lot more to the daylight hike than blisters and sore shoulders.
I guess what I dislike is the failure of the writer to give us a sense of the landscape, who ignore it except for the dramatic moments.

Yep, adventure is work, Anna.
Your kidding, I hope.

MissWrite said...

All that is very true, but the main thing that makes a 'quest' story (or any story) work IMO is the reason for the quest, or situation. What happens along the way also, at least to hold my interest needs to have a reason and be depicted in an interesting way.

MissWrite said...

Just read the comments... what you said above Bernita is right on target in my book. Having ephiphanies along the way, fighting 'fierce tribes' to show the characters either inability to cope with pressure, or fight (and then as he goes on how he learns to do that) and not just because the author felt like throwing in a fierce tribe. Waxing eloquent about the deep red of the maple trees in the fall along a path of stone that led to a brick wall... cool but it better be because at the end of the journey that red maple/stone path/brick wall was a symbol for something.

Bernita said...

Right, Tami, the stakes should be clear and the consequences dire, or else, as one traveller once put it, the story becomes "just one damn wadi after another."

I like a little description of the terrain, otherwise we are treated to ONLY dark and demon-filled forests or gaping chasms and nothing else, in a stuttering sort of way. Give me the occasional sense that they are actually travelling, not just pit-stops and leap-frogs from crisis to crisis.
Of course, the best stories manage this balance between minutae and movement very well.

bunnygirl said...

You've described one of the things I struggled with in my Diana's Diary fiction blog.

Diana wasn't on a magical quest-- she just wanted to find herself. But finding a balance was always a tricky matter because I wanted her journey to seem realistic and I wanted her to be very, very human. Therefore, she must have good days and bad, and she couldn't succeed at everything she tried.

Since I chose to write each and every day of her journey, not conveniently skipping over boring stuff, I had to come up with some way to make the dull stuff interesting. Of course she had adventures all along the way, but I wanted those to remain realistic, too.

Diana had days where she hated the landscape and despaired of ever getting where she was going. And there were days where she found herself overawed and humbled by natural beauty, such as when she came upon the City of Rocks and when she arrived at the Mississippi River.

Luckily for me, Diana was curious about everything in her world, whether it was the changing nature of architecture as she moved from New Mexico to Texas and on into Oklahoma and Missouri, or whether it was a desert shrine or just a rabbit in a garden that caught her attention.

Being only nineteen, she sometimes reversed herself, winning confidence or having an epiphany one day, only to have her hopes dashed and her whole journey called into doubt around the next bend in the road.

If I had chosen to write her journey in a traditional novel format where I could've easily jumped ahead of the boring stuff and only related the adventures, I think I wouldn't have learned half as much about writing, and to my mind, the story would've been poorer for it.

Some of this is in my "Lessons Learned" post on the sidebar of the Diana's Diary blog. Anyone thinking of doing-- a strict write-about-each-day accounting of a journey might find some of what I learned helpful. :-)

Bernita said...

Thank you, Bunny.
Perhaps that was what I was reaching for - the sense of journey-realism that is sometimes missing.

spyscribbler said...

I think you're right. Sometimes in the quest to "skip the uninteresting parts," we don't include parts that should made interesting, not skipped.

Bonnie Calhoun said...'re right...but they don't usually tell use about going to the bathroom either *snort*. but if we've seen them eat, we know they do!

ROFLOL...I'm sorry...LOL...forgive me, but I was just in a discussion about the TV show 24, and how we never see anybody eat or go to the bathroom! LOL...this fit right into that theme...LOL!

Bernita said...

Well put, Natasha.

Eh, Bonnie, in some I've read they do mention it. Not to the point of counting turds or anything, which would be uninteresting detail, but ackowledge the necessity.

archer said...

In David Copperfield there is a haunting scene during his journey to London by coach. David is very young, about 18, and lets himself be subtly bullied by the driver and a regular into giving up his first-class seat. It's exactly the kind of thing that happens to you when you're too young to know how to tell someone to buzz off. It's everything about being young we like to forget--the vulnerability that comes with inexperience. He describes it with scarifying honesty--how he can never recall the scene without a pang of self-doubt. And then he looks out of the window, and the journey goes on.

raine said...

Quite agree, Bernita.

I remember a 'quest' dream I once had, involving a perforated copper map and a magic pouch...
But even now I remember some details of the landscape, the smell of the water and unfamiliar air, etc., all intertwined with what happened at various stages of the journey.

Lovely photo.

Bernita said...

Um, yes, Archer, very poignant.

Yes, Raine, those details.
It is isn't it? I was wondering how the journey from the vantage point to the high massive beyond the river might be described in different hands.

Sam said...

Yes, Jack London was a wonderful journey writer.
for a good book about a journey, Paul Theroux's 'Mosquito Coast' comes to mind, with the trek, the internal and external conflicts, and the mosquitos...

Bernita said...

Mandated by the title, Sam.
I notice that's one thing often missing from quest stories - the bugs.

archer said...

Um, glad you agree, Bernita.

Carla said...

"I guess what I dislike is the failure of the writer to give us a sense of the landscape, who ignore it except for the dramatic moments."
Agree there. I like the feeling that the landscape matters and isn't just a painted backscene.

Also agree about the bugs. It's astonishing how many novels set in the Scottish Highlands in summer seem to have joined the tourist boards' conspiracy of silence about the midge.

Bernita said...

I'm faint but pursuing, Archer.

"a painted backscene" - that's it, Carla, a canvas backdrop too often,a painted stage.
Yes, been amused by middens and manure piles sans flies, and forest treks without dog flies, horse flies, blackflies... Seems only one's allowed are rare dragonflies - suitably jewelled.

Ric said...

I always thought the reason writers don't write about bugs is that they have such sour personalities, they aren't bothered by them.

Bernita said...

Maybe it's only the wannabe novelists like me who are sour, Ric.
However, we are advised to grow a thick skin after all.
Actually, bug time is the only time I think I'm sweet.

bunnygirl said...

A winter setting takes care of most of the bug problems. ;-)

Then you just have to write about snow. And ice. And mud when it all melts.

Scott from Oregon said...

I spent well over fifteen years simply "adventuring". I don't suppose the intent was clear, other than it sure beat not adventuring. Sometimes the traveling WAS the adventure, sometimes sitting cramped in the back of a mini-van for nine hours straight was all I would want to say about a particular move...

If I want epic adventure, I inevitably go back and read the Ring trilogy starting with The Hobbit.

Bernita said...

And frostbite and floundering, Bunny...
BTW, your post on this subject is excellent.

The environment is part of the challenge, even the tediousness.
I was amazed to discover, Scott, that many of my favourite quest stories are now considered YA.

writtenwyrdd said...

I love that photo. Where can I score a copy?

It doesn't take a whole lot to make the reader feel the small irritations of a trip. It can stretch the knowledgeable reader's belief beyond her capacity if you leave all of the small dangers (infection, falls, aches and pains and exhaustion) from the quest. But like ric says, it can go too far, too. I vote for small details, though, and I always will.

I just finished rereading Lawrence Watt-Evan's The Misenchanted Sword, and our hero is walking barefoot for weeks, and there are mentions of the problems, such as blisters that healed, but that's the only mention. I let it slide, but I was rolling mine eyes. However, he at least mentioned wet feet and hard ground and socks that wore out, even though the feet just toughened up and blisters "healed" with no problems or infection worries.

writtenwyrdd said...

I just read the rest of the posts. How can anyone write about the woods and not mention bugs? They must live in southern California or the desert! LOL.

Bernita said...

The photographer was represented ( at least back in '96) by First Light Associated Photographers of Toronto, Written.
He's won a number of international awards for his photography.