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A Frame of Place

Flickr Creative Commons: Alice
Flickr Creative Commons: Alice

The packers are here. Yes, this very hour. We’re moving. Not down the road, across town, or even as close as a state away. We’re traveling 1,500 miles north to an entirely new place, another world for all intents and purposes. By this time next month, I’ll be there and not here. This present hour will be the shadowbox memory in my mind.

So while men stack my books in brown boxes and seal them up with packing tape, I’m standing here at my office window, looking out at the mighty Franklin Mountains and the parched Rio Grande. They’ve been my writing companions for nearly a decade. From here, I’ve watched the sunset light up that rocky ridge as red as a bonfire. I’ve felt the anxious anticipation of a summer sandstorm’s approach. I’ve opened this window to let in the rare scent of desert rain. I rooted my mind—reality and imagination—within the frame of this place.

Place. Such a powerful thing. A story world cannot be composed without first being grounded in a place and time. The setting is the stage on which the characters and action are invested.

Writers Roundtable

This topic of place came up in a group of novelists on Facebook. Aline Ohanesian [1] explained, “With my first novel, I felt a string of personal connections to the place/setting of Central Anatolia where my grandparents were from. I grew up listening to stories about the old country until I felt nostalgia for a place I’d never been.”

Hilary Zaid [2] was passionate that “place is inextricable, essential, and informs everything else. A novel is steeped in it, as an object in a vat of dye.”

Sandra Hunter [3] agreed, “I’m with Hilary. For me, setting informs everything. It provides dimension to character, explains root causation, as well as conflict and just about every other thing.”

Going to my own work for evaluation, I find that the settings have always been the genesis. In The Mapmaker’s Children [4], the novel began with a West Virginia house hiding a secret. The culture and history of the Underground Railroad in that specific location was the catalyst for the characters’ journeys. The landscape (environmental to social) directly influenced the plot action.

I was led to write The Baker’s Daughter [5] after moving to El Paso, Texas, and meeting a German woman selling baked goods at the farmer’s market. I knew Garmisch, Germany, having been there as a child and visited often as an adult. The two places are as significant as the characters that hail from them. They don’t align naturally and yet, they align authentically.

And right there, we circle back to Hunter’s comment: conflict in setting is story gold.

So now, I’m flipping the coin. If setting is such a forceful ingredient in our writing, wouldn’t it be equally potent in our real lives? We all agree it is the bedrock to our creative worlds, but what about our personal ones?

I’ve lived in Texas so long that I can’t imagine my new writing routine, never mind my new life routine in a foreign place: where do I buy groceries; who’s my dog groomer; what about a dentist? The people I bump into during my day-to-day activities impact the lens through which I see the scenes around me and the scenes I portray in words. To borrow from Zaid, we (and our novels) are steeped in our physical cultures, as an object in a vat of dye.

Even something as seemingly insignificant as the weather has an influence. I’ve lived in 360 days of desert sunshine and soon, I’ll be in a land where the raindrops outnumber the rays. I’m a total cliché: I laugh often when the sun is shining and feel all doomsday when it’s not. Will that permeate my work? I’m curious.

The Head Honchos Weigh In

I was at a book festival recently and had the pleasure of lunching with celebrity author John Grisham [6]. Somehow we got on the topic of writing routines. I told him I felt neurotic in that I can’t write unless I’m in my home office with my lucky rock collection to my left, my corkboard of ideas to my right, my historical research piled beside me, and my dog wedged into the cushion of my desk chair. It has to be just so or I can’t get into the groove.

He told me he was similar, even to the hour. Validation! Grisham has to be in the exact same place at the exact same time every day to write. Like a combination lock at the perfect setting to open a vault.

But then I remembered a dinner I had with masters of prose, Scott Turow [7] and Jean Kwok [8]. They encouraged me to try a writing residency and swore by Ragdale [9] as a creative cloister where the words flowed like honey. Leaving real-life’s daily routine to be submerged in a foreign location allowed their imaginations to focus on the story settings, not their personal ones.

Truthfully, I shirked at the idea. I am a homebody. I love my old familiars. I couldn’t imagine getting a stitch done in a new-to-me location. I’d be too busy wondering who else slept in this room, walked the surrounding woods, and what was in those woods anyhow? But who am I to knock it given the amazing books both of these authors have produced in residency.

Then there are friends who follow in the mode of the great J.K. Rowling [10], penning their piece de resistances between point A and B—in trains, planes, and cars. It’s now writer lore that the idea for Harry Potter came to Rowling while on a train ride. By the time she reached her destination, she’d scribbled out longhand what was to arguably be the biggest book of the century.

The Question Remains

Once more, we come face to face with the truism: there is no one method or utopian location for writing.  Yet, as flesh and blood people (not ink and paper characters), the place in which we write is significant to our process and product.

This isn’t some crafty literary lecture here. It’s an open dialogue. I’m reaching out to you, my writing community—my stable enclave in a season of change. As a writer, I feel unboxed even as all my belongings are boxed up. The inner and outer realms in discord: another conflict of setting, right?

So my question remains. We all agree that setting is paramount to literature, but do you feel your physical setting is equally influential in your storytelling?

About Sarah McCoy [11]

SARAH McCOY is the New York TimesUSA Today, and international bestselling author of The Mapmaker’s Children [12]; The Baker’s Daughter [13], a 2012 Goodreads Choice Award Best Historical Fiction nominee; the novella “The Branch of Hazel” in Grand Central [14]; and The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico [15]. Her work has been featured in Real Simple, The Millions, Your Health Monthly, Huffington Post [16] and other publications. She has taught English writing at Old Dominion University and at the University of Texas at El Paso. She calls Virginia home but presently lives with her husband, an orthopedic sports doctor, and their dog, Gilly, in Chicago, Illinois. Connect with Sarah on Twitter [17] at @SarahMMcCoy, on her Facebook Fan Page [18], Goodreads [19], or via her website, www.sarahmccoy.com [20].