Writing about Landscape













Martin Nathan looks at the use of online tools to construct landscapes in fiction

A novel is a narrative construction in time and place. As an author, establishing the detail of your locations draws the reader into the world you have created. A number of tools have become available in recent years that can help in the creation of fictional landscapes, but these have their own dangers.

I was writing childhood scenes in a novel recently, which were set in an urban landscape. I used a place I knew well; the block of flats where I grew up in Den Haag, Holland, as the basis of the setting. When I had finished my first draft I was keen to see how my fictional location matched with what is there now. I wanted to check out the geography, but I was wary of visiting at this point. I was concerned that being there would pollute my childhood memory, and the mood I was creating.

Landscape has changed with the internet. It is not just a place that we inhabit, but also a series of cascading images that bombard us as we navigate with our smartphones.  I used Google Maps to explore Den Haag, found the estate and looked up at our flat on the seventh floor. I could see into the lobby with its rows of door buzzers and letterboxes.  I could see the surrounding blocks. But it was not the place I remembered. The block wasn’t grey and damp-stained. It now had gleaming white cladding and the ground around it was turfed. There were trees and bushes. The abandoned cars had gone. The place was now fixed in permanent sunshine.

I travelled on using Streetview, and a strange thing happened. As I walked down the road it was summer, but as I reached the tram stop, it became winter. The trees were suddenly bare. There was snow on the ground. The block of flats had descended into a grey gloom. In one step I could travel backwards and forwards between seasons.

Google Earth creates its own world. It sweeps away memories, hides locations, steps between seasons. Like Guy Maddin’s ‘My Winnipeg’ whose fictional version of his hometown is often accepted as true, its construct is powerful enough to create its own mythology. The sunny view of my childhood home was much nicer than the one I remembered. And like the sleep-walking inhabitants of Winnipeg, once we get to know the place we never want to leave.

In journeying into the landscape of my memory, I discovered there is no right place from which to observe the world.

I resumed my wintery Streetview journey towards my friend’s house, past the hospital for incurables and the open prison playing fields. Suddenly I was stuck with a fixed image at the end of the street and could not go any further. Streetview and Google Earth keep us out of some places, and we cannot find out why. Some locations it is obvious – there are prisons, military buildings in the area, but other places you can only guess what the secret is.

The artist Mishka Henner uses Google Earth to uncover beautiful images of epic environmental scenes, such as feedlots in the USA, and to explore the landscapes Google Earth conceals, challenging the observer to imagine the landscape below and the reasons for its concealment.  Creating a landscape in fiction involves a similar process, journeying as far as possible through the imagination, fitting other landscapes to it, exploring the poetry and myths of the place, creating surprising details and using these to build up a convincing setting. For historical or fantasy locations you will often base it on a real place.

Research can be very dangerous for the fiction writer. You uncover so many fantastic facts to incorporate and they can disrupt your narrative and sweep away the mystery. Google Earth gives you one image; visiting the place gives another but there are many more. A visit provides an opportunity to check facts and add detail, but there are dangers in going there too early.

It is important to remember that what Google Earth and Streetview reveal is not the truth of a landscape, but additional layers of creation and selection of a location. They are part of the toolkit now available to the writer, providing us with a virtual means to explore both familiar and unfamiliar locations. Through this navigation, they contribute their own stories to the framework on which you build your own narrative.


Time in the Narrative

In 1880 a pneumatic time system came into operation in Paris, transmitting air pulses through a subterranean network of pipes from a central point in Rue Saint-Anne. By its peak it drove 7,800 clocks and the city was synchronized by these pulses, moving another step forward, minute by minute.

An extended narrative, such as a novel, is a construction in time. It can follow the course of a single day, like Joyce’s Ulysses, or a thousand years, e.g. Normington’s The Devil’s Highway. It can have multiple pathways as various characters navigate their course through a set of events, and it probably has more freedom to manipulate time than any other art form. With this freedom comes the potential for frustration and confusion on the part of the reader.

Some years ago I went to Greece in a bid to save a collapsing relationship. Somehow ouzo and fermented octopus didn’t do the trick, but while we were away, my partner’s parents stayed in our Brixton flat. They had a busy itinerary visiting all the major London landmarks in a fortnight.

When we returned, they told us they had been terrified by the area and only left the flat to visit Marks and Spencers. My father-in-law presented me with a map of the area he had cut out of the Daily Mail. On it he had plotted all the murders that had taken place during the two weeks we’d been away. The numbers were boosted by a serial killer who was targeting old people. He had marked each with a pin, red or blue for pensioners. Each pin was marked with the time and date. The string marked the distance from our flat. At the top he had cut out the Daily Mail’s headline: Brixton’s Murder Mile.








Later it struck me that the map my father-in-law had created could be a useful pattern of the events of a piece of fiction. It helps you to move from a straight chronological unfolding, and opens up the possibilities of entering into the sequence of events late and working backwards and forwards simultaneously. It also suggests the possibility for each of your characters knowing a different selection of events, becoming aware of them in different sequences.

In ‘The Poetics’ Aristotle defines plot as the arrangement of events in time. His favoured example is Oedipus Rex, and the arrangement of events within the tragedy is more complex than a simple chronological unfolding. Sophocles enters at the point of crisis with plague ravaging Thebes and past incidents are uncovered amid prophecy, as the climax unfolds.

The narrative of a novel generally does not consist of events, but of characters becoming aware of events. The modern novel provides opportunities for more complex time structures, and the sequence of whereby characters learn of events is significant. It is generally a good principle in fiction to minimize what your characters know, and only to let them discover information as it is necessary. This is commonly used in genre fiction e.g. thrillers and crime, but has a wider application, and requires you to keep track of this growing knowledge.

In the diagram below, the lines show the paths where a particular character becomes aware of events. It has an entry point of the ‘serious assault’ and the action of Chapter 1 is the character becoming aware of Murder 5, Chapter 2 is Murder 4, Chapter 3 is Murder 2 and 3. There will often be several of these for different characters. This is of course just one way to map these processes, and any kind of event could replace murder.








If you read Genette’s Narrative Discourse, you discover the process of a narrator becoming aware of events can be complex. Even simple narrative passages often involve time shifts, with flash-backs and flash-forwards (Genette uses the terms analepsis and prolepsis). These can be explicit relocations in time, or more subtle, with predictive elements, foreshadowing or recapitulation. These time shifts can be disruptive to the reader and confusing if they are not controlled but they often enrich a narrative. The degree of latitude can be used as a defining character trait where you have several narrative voices. Some voices can be prone to reflection on the past and anticipation, where others are much more limited to the immediate moment.

Analysis and mapping the sequences and time shifts retrospectively the way Genette does, is hard work and is likely to lead to a significant drop in your output. Establishing the rules in advance for each character is much easier and can enrich the narrative provided you are controlled and consistent in their use.

A seemingly straightforward narrative often relies on the tension between a character’s expectations, plans, hopes, fears and the unfolding events. In ‘The Birth of Tragedy’ Nietzsche puts the Apollonian element in conflict with the Dionysian. The Apollonian is rational and prophetic, following a strategy to bring about an outcome, whereas the Dionysian is instinctive and stuck in the immediate experience. When this tension becomes too much, the plans fall apart. Nietzsche suggests that the solution to problems ultimately requires a departure from the rational, leaving behind the familiar and entering the world of darkness, instinct and terror. This descent into a chaotic irrational world is commonly used in drama, fiction and film. But you might not like what you discover down there.

Novels can have complex structures of characters involved with events in a series of patterns in time. Manipulating these patterns offers depth and interest in the structure of fiction but can be disruptive to the reader if not managed carefully. Defining and following the rules of time for the narrative is essential to avoiding confusion.



Narrative Distance

Narrative Distance








I have been exploring John Gardner’s concept of Narrative Distance or psychic distance recently. He includes it in his section discussion common errors by writers in ‘The Art of Fiction’, but I have found useful throughout my writing, both as something to be aware of when reviewing drafts, but also as a device to be aware of and control during in the initial writing.

His concept of psychic distance is essentially the closeness of the narrator to the action that they are narrating; how much the narration is in their head, so to speak, and its importance is that

jolts in this distance will disrupt the narrative from the reader’s perspective and should be avoided.  Point of view is who carries the narrative observation. Psychic distance is how much they can see, know and how much they are emotionally involved in the narrative.

His examples of different levels of psychic distance are:

  1. It was winter of the year 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway.
  2. Henry J. Warburton had never much cared for snowstorms.
  3. Henry hated snowstorms.
  4. God how he hated these damn snowstorms.
  5. Snow. Under your collar, down inside your shoes, freezing and plugging up your miserable soul

Obviously, the psychic distance is reducing as you go down this list. There is a shift to second person in the fifth in these examples but this is not inevitable. Similar lists can be devised with all in the first-person. In this, the lowest position is a stream of consciousness.

Using a photographic analogy, the psychic distance can be considered similar to focal length; you can observe a scene from a close-up view, or you can be a distant telephotographic perspective. But it is important to be aware that there are other elements buried in this concept. There is also the degree of participation in the action – they can be a non-participatory observer, or a heavily involved participant. Ontop of this, there is the interpretive level – if they are closely involved in the action they may have little power to analyse and understand events. There is also an emotional closeness. Gardner does not separate these elements out, but I find that there can be an advantage in this. Each can shift independently.

Gardner’s concern is about sudden shifts in psychic distance, but this does not mean they cannot change. It is a matter of being aware when you want this shift and you may want to control the change and shift it gradually. If you want to trigger a sudden shift, it may be more effective to provide a trigger – some reason in the narrative, or just a clue to the reader that the change is happening.

As I indicated, I have been using it as a conscious decision to set up patterns of psychic distance. Variety in the psychic distance can provide a relief – an extended period at a single extreme point can be wearing. Selecting an appropriate level or pattern of engagement through psychic distance can be helpful in differentiating characters; fourthly, a novel is about a controlled release of information, and consciously setting the psychic distance gives you this means of control.

My current project is an epistolary novel based on a divided family in Malaya and England. A problem with letters is that they impose restrictions in terms of interaction – and their communication is divided by time as letters went by sea. By consciously manipulating psychic distance, subdivided as I have described, I set up a call-and-response between the correspondents, either accepting or rejecting level or pattern of levels offered. Whether Gardner would recognise this as his original concept, I don’t know, but for me it works.

Often the body of a letter will start with a fairly distant description of an event, but will then get drawn into their emotional response to it. The respondent will then respond at that close level and try to draw the level back, diffusing the emotion.

An important element in a novel is the controlled release of information, and the exchange of certain types of information will only occur at the appropriate level.

I am using letters between the three daughters and their parents, and for each of them I consciously set patterns of psychic level and the jumps in level as defining character.


A letter is interesting because it makes you think about these levels, and often sometimes the correspondents are trying to shift each other’s level, either getting them to engage more closely with events around them, or drawing them back when it gets too close to be comfortable.

To summarise, there are, for me, the following elements which can be buried within psychic distance:

  • Observation distance
  • Involvement in action
  • Emotional involvement
  • Interpretive level
  • Time span of the moment within the narration (is it the immediate undigested experience or a longer processed time frame).

It can be advantageous to separate these out, and manipulate them independently, and thinking about and analyzing them.

I am not trying to push my interpretation of this generally, but I would advocate reading Gardner, and more generally around this subject and see how other people have interpreted this, and working out what is useful for your writing.

It is also worth reading Genette’s Narrative Discourse and checking what he says narrative or diegetic level and being clear on this in relation to psychic level.

To read further about psychic distance, see John Gardner – the Art of Fiction,

John Gardner (1984) The Art of Fiction. Penguin/Random House

Gennette, Gerard ([1983] 1988 Narrative Discourse, an essay in method. Ithaca: Cornell UP

Emma Darwin’s blog – This Itch of Writing discusses this in a number of entries.

http://emmadarwin.typepad.com/thisitchofwriting/   Last accessed 5/10/2017