Landscape notes, by Elizabeth Kay

 Setting is one of those things that is really important, and it can be the starting point for a plot. I have found the photographs I have taken on my travels to be particularly important, as they evoke memories. Extreme landscapes are the best, and in this post I’ll concentrate on ones without people. Next month I’ll do cities.

The emptiest landscapes – other than being at sea – are deserts. My first experience of desert was when I was eighteen, and I went to Morocco. In those days it was not a tourist destination at all, and I was captivated by the open spaces and the feeling of freedom it gave me. I grew up in North London, before we moved to Surrey when I was ten, and my earliest memories are grey; concrete, fog, smoke, post-war austerity. I hated it. Ever since, I have sought out landscapes with no obvious trace of human interference. I have experienced deserts in Tunisia, Egypt, Mongolia… and they have all been different.

 Cold is as atmospheric as heat, and my holiday to Iceland gave me a lot of ideas for the third book in the Divide trilogy, Jinx on theDivide. My publisher suggested using the trip notes I’d written as the end matter, a sort of epilogue that was separate from the fantasy world I’d created. This is a section from it:


Long dawns and twilights, which makes the passage of time seem strange. An odd, washed-out sky. Everything is a pearly grey-mauve, like a pastel watercolour. As dawn turns to day, the most incredible cloud formations build on the skyline, pink and gold against a cobalt backdrop. Closer to the horizon, there are sudden splashes of turquoise. The landscape is bleak, but I like bleak. Black volcanic soil, with areas of yellow-brown dead grass. Patches of snow sculpted into dunes by the wind, and sprinkled with earth along the ridges, like the powdered chocolate on the froth of a cappuccino coffee. In the distance, terrines of striated rocks with dustings of snow clinging to them. Now and again we see shining lace curtains of icicles festooned across the rock face at the side of the road. When the sun shines, the icicles start to melt. Particles of mud run down them like beetles, the ice acting as a magnifying glass. When you walk across the snow it’s like walking across a crème brulée; sometimes you crack the thin layer of ice on the top, and sink into a deep marshmallow drift. The wind has etched amazing patterns on the snow, and occasionally it has formed extraordinary shapes that could be anything…


Savannah tends to be populated by herds of animals, and you can still get great stretches of it when the animals are the only inhabitants, and the houses are termite hills and holes in the ground. Taking a balloon flight over the Masai Mara was incredible.

Weaver bird colony

The other cities, apart from termite mounds, are weaver bird colonies. Weaver birds are very noisy and argumentative, and their colonies can consist of hindreds of nests. Their main enemies are snakes, which can climb the trees and reach the chicks.

The llanos, in Venezuela, is the huge expanse of flat land in the middle of the country. Here, you find capypara, anacondas, caiman. But it can look pretty empty.

Jungle is a bit different, as it’s much more dense and you can’t see very far. Most of the animal activity takes place in the canopy, and there can be surprisingly little to see at ground level. Nevertheless, the sounds and smells are really important, and it was Costa Rica that gave me the opening to the first book in the trilogy, The Divide. Since then I’ve seen jungles in India, Cambodia, Zambia, Venezuela… and they’re all different, too.


Gorillas in Rwanda
The jungle at night.
Borneo, when birds go to sleep.

My photographs are really important to me, as they bring back so many details I’ve forgotten. I don’t have many records of my earliest trips as it was all film in those days, and film was expensive – not to mention the developing and printing. Digital photography has revolutionised the whole process, and made things so much easier. As long as you can keep your camera charged, of course. And, hopefully, in November I will be seeing icebergs for the first time as I’m off to Greenland… Covid permitting.





Griselda Heppel said…
What a wonderful post, evoking so many different stunning settings, each with its own colours, sounds, smells, temperature and possibilities of beauty and terror. Your end writing to your first Jinx book was so powerful I could feel myself there, crunching over the delicate snow like cracking the top of crime brûlée (yes, that’s what it must feel like). Bleak but breathtaking.

And I would LOVE to go to Costa Rica.

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