Dispatches is a new series on our blog in which our writers-in-residence, Joan Leegant and Kary Wayson, will discuss topics that come up often during their office hours. As a bonus, the posts will end with a prompt that addresses the topic at hand.
Where Am I? Giving Your Work a Sense of Place
By Joan Leegant
One of the things I often see in drafts of fiction is an absence of a strong sense of place. Events will be unscrolling at a good clip, plots will be thickening in interesting ways, characters will be causing each other all manner of wonderful trouble—but I have no idea where it’s happening. We could be in sunny Southern California or frozen Boston; at a small private college in Minnesota or a football university in Texas, an office in Washington, D.C., or one in Richland, Washington.
“Who cares?” you might ask. What difference does it make if Sally and Pete are divorcing each other in Providence or Pittsburgh, if Ray’s father is dying in Salt Lake City or Boca Raton? The story isn’t about Boca Raton; it’s about Ray’s regret that he was a lousy son and his too-late realization that his father did the best he could while accumulating a few paralyzing regrets of his own. Besides, what about all those great Raymond Carver (raised in Yakima, Washington) stories that took place in Anywhere, U.S.A.?
Excellent point. For some stories, the focus is so intently on the characters that where it happens is of no consequence and might even be a distraction. But what if your story would benefit from some rootedness, some clues to the reader for how to see things, an added layer of meaning carried in by the setting? Not every story has to be as steeped in place as Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain or Junot Diaz’s Drown for setting to matter. Sometimes a subtle evocation is all you need in order to help a reader settle in and enter your fictional dream: a forgotten mound of snow beside a stone wall, a nurse on the night shift worried about the young man injured in a combine accident, a conversation at a kitchen table between neighbors whose teenage sons are playing basketball in the driveway. The reader might not be aware that she’s been transported to New England in March or a town in rural Nebraska or a prosperous suburb made up of split levels and SUVs, but as she reads, a picture is forming in her mind, like a blurry photograph coming into focus. Tagging along are a distinct sensibility, a tone, and a set of unspoken expectations—all brought into your story, like a gift, by the kind of place you conjure.
And what about for you, the writer? Writing about place can lead you to story and to the uncovering of character—the nurse doesn’t know if she can bear to finish her shift since the boy’s injuries so closely resemble those of her own son fifteen years before; the stone wall is the property line for land owned for two hundred years by a family of apple growers, now slated for controversial development—helping not only your reader enter the fictional dream but you, the writer, as well.
Exercise/prompt: Begin a story with an intentionally strong sense of place. Keep writing until a character or situation emerge from the specifics of the setting.
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