Sometimes you can’t see the forest for the trees, but sometimes you can’t see the trees in the forest. In novels, sometimes the forest is just trees, a source of wood, a hiding place for bandits, but we never see more details than the generic trees. What sort of forests do your characters live in? One full of different trees, or cardboard cut outs?
It depends on the story. For instance in Pride and Prejudice, the characters are first and foremost, so strolling through a “prettyish kind of a little wilderness’’ is enough. The reader is focused on Lady Catherine and how awful she is, not what sort of tree she is sneering at. But even so, this formed a place of seclusion, privacy needed for both to show their true colours. Would Elizabeth been so outspoken with her mother in the room? Lady Catherine was impervious to her surroundings, speaking her mind equally in parlour and shrubbery.
But as a setting, forests have a lot going for them. The mood of a forest can be powerful, with bright sunshine vs a storm. In Clan of the Cave Bear, Ayla is orphaned by an earthquake, hiding in forests, hunting for foods as a terrified little girl. How different is it when she is older, a mature woman with a knowledge of herbs? In ‘The Cave Children’ by A.Th. Sonnleitner, the forest danger is intensified by a storm, and becoming orphaned in the wilderness after fleeing the village. Disaster heaped upon danger and despair, hunger and discomfort. Nothing is comfortable, and the future looks grim.
Forests can hide a number of people – hermits, religious and helpful, or insane and dangerous, or isolated healers. In Morrinmoss, Thomas Covenant was saved by a forest healer, where she sacrificed herself for him. To get to her when he did not know he searched for her, he endured a period of madness enhanced by poison, hunger and injury. The hanging moist moss in the trees stained his white robes, a symbol of his descent into madness and death.
But the forests themselves can be the character. Dryads and satyrs of myth, dancing their wild dances under the moon in green glades hidden from the sight of men. Ents and the missing Ent wives, the force of domesticity warring with the return to the wild. Anyone with magic of the earth and land may be able to see and manipulate the forest.
There is a lot of research into the forest ecosystem, as even a bog standard forest varies. The forest contains multiple micro ecosystems dependent on climate, landscapes, slope, moisture, soil type and history. The mass of fungal mycelium network that links trees and soils and fungi, and the communications between plants via plant hormones and wind. All these things are real, so it is not too much of a stretch to think of a forest as sentient. Long years of hatred towards men with axes – think of Mirkwood in Middle Earth and the sentient forests of Stephen Donaldson. What reception would people have in there, and at what risk do they enter? What will they sacrifice to leave? What evil creatures have made a life within the trees?
In Rosemary Sutcliffe ‘The Frontier Wolf’ she uses the boggy forest and swamps as a powerful part of a land that is part of local celtic mythology. Passing through a sacred area is possible, yet there will be a price to pay with the death of one of their number. This was also used by Stephen Donaldson again in the forest of Garroting Deep (a giveaway of danger right there!) when the sentient and angry forest took a life to pay for safe passage. Nicholas Eames in Kings of the Wyld has extended this concept of an antagonistic forest to a huge area full of monsters, terrible creatures, dangerous trees/bogs/insects that can only be travelled well weaponed and skilled. Even then the memories of death stay with travellers. In Midworld, Alan Dean Foster had seven different levels of Hell forest, all different depending on sunlight. Each with their own dangers.
So fill your forests with variety. Don’t just have a cardboard forest, pack it with fungi, moss, bushes, grass – and see what is hiding in the shadows.
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