How do you envision places you have not yet seen? Not imaginary worlds, but say you are reading a history of a place unfamiliar to you, and there are no photographs. Or the illustrations show only the town and not the surroundings. How do you envision the surrounding area, and why?
These are both photos of Umbria in Italy, the top one from near Spoleto. The question of “how do you envision places” came to mind because I was skimming through the landscape photos on Blazing Cat Fur (I go there for the articles, really) and there was a beautiful evening or late afternoon photo of Umbria, with the sun shining down through broken clouds and fingers of light touching the hilly landscape. Emphasis on hills. Because I blinked a few times, since to my mind’s eye, Italy is flat, unless it is specifically mountains (like the Dolomites or Apennines.) Yes, I know there are mountains in Italy, and that most of Italy is not plains, but unless there is a specific description, my mental default is “flat” or perhaps gently rolling. The Italian hill towns I imagine as a fortified city on a hill, surrounded by plains. But that’s not what Italy really looks like.
As I looked at the photo, I recalled a conversation with “Tom,” a captain I flew with when I worked for the charter/spray company. A little background: we were in Flat-in-the-Middle State. I grew up in Another Flat State (different from the home of Flat State U). Somehow we started talking about the role Life magazine influenced how people in the US saw the country, or specifically the countryside. Tom grew up on a rural farm, and imagined that most of the US looked pretty much like the plains around his farm: flat to slightly rolling, with rivers that were bigger versions of his home streams. His father, a WWII vet, just grinned. When Tom made his first trip across the state, when he was on a High School trip, he was in for a big surprise. Parts of Flat-in-the-Middle state are really quite rugged. Tom’s father explained that he’d though the same thing, and could not believe the classroom geography book at first when it described a very different world. Then he started looking at Life magazine when it came onto the scene in the 1930s. Holy moly the US really did have odd parts to it. Like his son, Tom’s dad had to re-do his mental image of the world. He saw the same thing happen in the Army in WWII.
Tom’s mental default was gently rolling. Mine is flat. The Alps are different, of course, but say, you are describing something as a desert. What do you see? Sand dunes and camels, or just dunes, maybe some bare rock outcrops? How about a river valley with ankle high grasses and jagged rocks, small mountains, poking up? Or blue mountains looming over a swath of scrub?
Did I mention that there are desert bluebonnets that grow 18″ tall and larger? But it’s a desert. Nary a camel or sand dune, unless you count fossilized ones.
The Sonoran Desert fits the lumpy and bumpy description better than the “ergs of sand” of the Sahara or Saudi. And it has those cactus that show up in every Western that’s not set in San Francisco or Seattle (OK, or Canada). But that may not be what comes to mind when you read “desert.” For someone from Arizona or northern Mexico it would be.
It is fascinating what our mental defaults are. And for a writer it means we have to be careful about assuming our “desert waste” or “edge of volcanic mountains” looks to our readers as it looks to us. I know precisely what Singing Pines and Burnt Mountain look like. And how the Drachental around Schloß Drachenburg smells and appears. But your version is likely different, based on what you know of the Alps or San Juan Mountains.
And Italy is not as flat as I think. But everything else still is.