I was not gifted with a Sense of Direction. North often feels West, and South usually feels down-ish. To make matters worse, when I travel in a new place, I forget to pay attention to landmarks. I can never remember if I should turn left at the river or at the white shack. Is the white shack even on this road? Wasn’t the river on my left earlier this morning? The next thing I know, I am lost.
I was born without an internal compass, but I also often find myself lost because landscape and landmarks do not interest me. People interest me. The road maps on their faces and veined hands, the direction of their posture, the location of their piercings or birthmarks, the foundation of their sadness. People hold my attention, but landmarks? Who cares! Setting schmetting!
It doesn’t surprise me, therefore, when my writing partners nudge me about the “where” of my story. As in, Sarah, where’s the Where? They are lost. Without Setting, stories feel blurred and gauzy.
The problem? When I consider Setting in my writing, I feel ho-hummy. Setting feels boring like chess or physics. Like Pokemon or cricket (the stick game, not the insect). Like economic policy or bridge (the card game not the architectural structure). Like baseball. Wait . . . you know what? Baseball used to be boring, but then my son started playing, and after sitting through nine thousand innings in 40-degree Seattle drizzle, I now love it. Because I understand it.
So I set about trying to understand Setting, and I am now a Setting evangelist. As such, may we please scrap the term “Setting” and instead use “Sense of Place”? It’s such a lovely term, Sense of Place . . . a lot of people think Flannery O’ Connor or Eudora Welty invented it, but no, I did.
OK, then. Let’s talk about why Sense of Place is so powerful and important.
Sense of Place Orients the Reader. The specific place doesn’t matter (it could be Augusta or Anchorage or Antarctica) but the reader cannot feel like the story takes place Anywhere or Anyplace. I have never heard a reader long to be more disoriented, more uncertain of where she is. A reader must feel tethered to a story in order to willingly tumble into it. The writer must create the Sense of Place that tethers the reader.
Sense of Place isn’t Just Location. Back in the old days (i.e. last week), I thought Place meant Location. Where the story is set. Now I see that’s only a slice of the place-pizza. “Place” encompasses all the stuff in the characters’ place: objects, baubles, possessions. Priscilla Long, in The Writer’s Portable Mentor, includes a beautiful chapter titled “Object and Setting,” in which she writes,
In real life, objects and settings carry strong meanings. No knickknack, no set of car keys, no room is neutral or random . . . The chair, the rug, the photos speak–even if obliquely–about who that person is. If you’ve ever had occasion to deal with a person’s effects after death, you know how powerfully these trinkets and packets of letters and ironed cotton handkerchiefs bare a particular person’s particular life. And so it is with fictional characters. Rooms stand for lives; objects hold history.
A particular person’s particular life! Yes. The stuff in our place matters. The stuff in our drawers, closets, wallets and purses speaks volumes. The other day I found some Spanx in my purse, along with a half-eaten chocolate bar, breath mints, four mostly-gone lip glosses, three church bulletins, five hair elastics, a love letter from my high school beau and some eye drops. That certainly says something. The treasures and possessions that surround our characters must say something too. (I didn’t really have an old love letter . . . but if I did? How that would add to my story!) What is the stuff surrounding your characters, and how does it contribute to story?
But wait, there’s more.
A Sense of Place Establishes Mood. My dear, old friend, F. Scott Fitzgerald, is a master of Sense of Place. In The Great Gatsby, check out the way Fitzgerald creates Place from the moment Nick walks into Tom and Daisy’s house:
The windows were ajar and gleaming white against the fresh grass outside that seemed to grow a little way into the house. A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding-cake of the ceiling, and then rippled over the wine-colored rug, making a shadow on it as wind does on the sea.
How airy! How breezy and summery and sugary! I want to eat that page each time I read it.
But later on in the novel, when the characters take a hot and tension-filled trip into the city, we are placed elsewhere:
The room was large and stifling, and, though it was already four o’clock, opening the windows admitted only a gust of hot shrubbery from the park . . . we were listening to the portentous chords of Mendelssohn’s Wedding March from the ballroom below.
Powdered sugar breezes are replaced by sweltering heat, oppressive weight, and the stickiest of tension. Fitzgerald uses Place to reveal nasty, social undercurrents and to create stifling discomfort for the reader. That’s why I love being pals with F. Scott. Because he rocks.
Last but not least . . .
A Sense of Place is Intertwined with Character. I live in Seattle, but I grew up not far from California’s wine country so let’s talk terroir for a moment. This wine-enthusiasts’ website says this:
[Terroir] can probably best be summed-up as the possession by a wine of a sense of place, or ‘somewhereness’. That is, a wine from a particular patch of ground expresses characteristics related to the physical environment in which the grapes are grown.
Same goes for humans. Plant a human in Seattle, and she will likely take on the characteristics of a Seattlite (pasty-skinned and coffee-drinking and polite to other drivers when stopped at a 4-way intersection). Plant that same human in Chicago, and you replace 4-way intersection politeness with, well, heartfelt finger gestures.
We humans are affected and molded by the soil in which we grow. Our characters’ values, manners, priorities and goals are similarly affected by their soil. In fact, Place can support or thwart a character just as the character’s best friend, mother or spouse does. Place can mold character. Place can even become a character. I don’t know how a writer does this. I just know it seems very difficult. If you know, please teach me?
And, while you’re at it, please share:
Where in your work in progress do you see Place impacting tone and character? Will you share some favorite novels with a strong Sense of Place? Why does Place matter in your particular work in progress?
Next month? Part II: HOW writers create strong Sense of Place (other than by plagiarizing Fitzgerald, O’Connor and Welty).
Photo courtesy of Flickr’s SPDP.