This past week, my family and I were in the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee. I love mountains. Love them. My father was born in the Davis Mountains in West Texas. That’s them below with historic Ft. Davis in the foreground. The Davis Mountains are my default setting for mountains. Big. Rocky. Not overly cluttered with trees. Yeah. I remember calling trees clutter at least once. In my defense, they really limit your view.
But this time around I was in the Smoky Mountains. The “smoke” is actually water vapor from the trees which says all you need to know about the number of trees. Where the Davis Mountains are dry, the Smoky Mntn’s may be as humid as St. Louis in the summer but it is much cooler. We were there for a week and it rained every day.
This really made me think about the importance of a detailed description. Mountains clearly have to be more than tall or vast. They have to do more than make other things look small or inconsequential. If you have mountains in your story, you should be able to hand a reader photographs of three groupings of mountains (the Davis Mountains, the Smoky Mountains, and any other group), and your reader should be able to choose just the right grouping.
You may not provide a lot of detail in your story but you need to have the setting in your mind’s eye as you write. This means that generic mountains will not do. Do your mountains have a scattering of trees, specifically cottonwood, or is there cactus like in the Davis Mountains? Or maybe your mountains are covered in Mountain Laurel, hickory, mimosa and hemlock like the Smoky Mountains. If your setting is a mountain group, remember that elevation also impacts what grows there.
But this level of knowledge doesn’t apply simply in the mountains. A rainforest can be full of kapok (the Amazon) or even cinnamon (Southeast Asia). Cities, bogs, suburbs and grasslands, each one will be unique. Not only do they look different but they will have a different impact on your characters – our topic for tomorrow.