Stories happen someplace in the world, but not just anyplace. Someplace special where I will take you. That’s the purpose of writing about specific locations and periods and incorporating them into our stories. We writers take our readers to places they may never have been at times they couldn’t have traveled. Try to imagine Khaled Hosseini’s young runner, Hassan, chasing a blue kite down the sidewalks of Parkway Avenue in Trenton, NJ rather than across the snaggletooth alleys of Kabul, Afghanistan before the revolution. Doesn’t have the same panache. Or consider Charles Dickens’ famished Oliver Twist begging for soup from the cafeteria lady at the school lunchroom instead of the miserly master of a workhouse in 1800’s London. Not nearly as desperate. Floating in a hot air balloon over Albuquerque is a daily errand compared to the heart stopping thrill of racing around the world for 80 days at the imagination of Jules Verne. You can’t gallop the Pony Express in Manhattan or mush the Iditarod in the Everglades.
The places where our stories happen are as important as the characters that people them and the events that energize them. When well realized, each complements the others and creates memorable images that propel the plot. More, the plot is possible because of those locations. Even if you have never visited Kabul, Trenton, the Great Plains, Nome, or hitched a ride in a balloon gondola, you have a sense of the roiling sky above, the smell on the street, the sounds pummeling your ears, the motion that nearly makes you sick. Ignore location in your books and run the risk of readers dismissing your work. “Where in the world does this take place?” you can hear them ask, and if they do, you have failed.
How then, to include a genuine scene of the exotic or extinct in your story, to be in that place at that moment when you’re potatoing at your computer? My own stories have begun as much in a place as with a hero and a quest. They are lock stepped into a setting as distinctive and essential as The Great Wall is to China, into a period as horrific as the Inquisition is to 15th century Spain. The Inlaid Table was born in a shtetl in Poland between the two world wars and otherwise would have been a laminated TV tray. Where Did Mama Go? is as fastened to the current zeitgeist of Alzheimer’s discourse as cell phones are glued to teenagers. The Tree House Mother would only have been a description of a backyard fort were it not for the twisting narrow roads that confounded fire departments when Lemon Heights burned in the 1960’s.
Our house was only a few miles from the center of that inferno. I remember the billowing black smoke that rained ashes on the flatlands where we lived. If there is an authentic voice to the fire in my story it’s because of a bit of luck forged years before. My parents were longtime friends with a couple who lived in the hills. When the fire combusted, our family worried for everyone but we knew who we worried for the most. They were safe and their house stood, as it turns out, but many years later the woman proved an amazing source of first hand information. I recalled a lot about that week but I hadn’t been in the hills, a foot from flames. She had.
I phone-interviewed Anita for hours over several days and met with her in a restaurant where I could sense the anxiety she’d felt all those decades past. She told me things no one had reported, details that gave flesh to a skeleton of an event. About the lost fire trucks, the panicked horses, the police coming around twice to warn people to evacuate, the water department manager who stood on the roof of the building and watched the fire leap ridgelines.
Then she brought out a packet of newspapers in a plastic sleeve, an entire journalistic rehash for two weeks of detailed reporting, and allowed me to take them home. Studying those papers was a boon I couldn’t have planned. Small town reporters know that a once in a lifetime opportunity to write up something other than football scores and broken hydrants is to be mined for every ounce of fool’s gold and diamond dust, because it might be the only chance to move out of the minor leagues up to the real deal. The local newshounds honed their skills with attention to detail, accurate fact collecting worthy of the FBI, and local color so neon that everyone knew exactly who’d been interviewed and which houses burned. Thank you one and all, you young cubs, and I hope you went on to bylines and columns of your own.
I studied the papers, I re-wrote my notes, I pondered, and had plenty of true life detail to write into my otherwise fabricated story. My hero, a figment of my imagination, got sidelined by horses fleeing down the road. She gave directions to lost firemen. I know from personal experience the acrid scent of smoke, how hot are raging flames, but the frightened horses and lost firemen – that was the contribution of my friend, Anita. She doesn’t write stories but she remembered.
Do whatever you need to gather first person evidence. If you can’t interview Columbus or visit Spain, scour diaries, census records, personal letters, almanacs, ship registers, train schedules, old maps, and supply lists. Snoop where snooping will unearth something useful, even though you won’t know how useful till you’re writing. Get those facts and thread them into your story so your reader will smack his hand against his head and declare, “Feels like I’m right in the middle of this.”
Be well, friend.
That is pretty awesome that you were able to get first-hand, detailed information about an event so that you could use it in your story. I’m sure this provided a level of “realness” and believability to the story that you might otherwise not have had.
Pure luck and maybe the blessings of the gods, especially since Anita remembered so many quirky things and had that stack of newspapers. I’d only asked about the fire on a hunch that she would remember some interesting details. But the interview taught me something else: double check your facts. Although she had the dated papers right in front of her, she kept insisting that the fire had happened the following year. I’m sure her age (she was in her 80’s) was playing its scumbag tricks on her.
Wonderful advice and a great case history to make your point. Now I’ll have to read the book!
Thank you, Huw. How have you incorporated specific locations in your books? As for mine: now I have to get the book published – still trying for traditional publication but considering all other options. I will let you know when it happens. You’ll probably hear me shout – no microphone necessary.
I’ve probably taken the easy(ish) way out. Although my books are set in contemporary Britain, the main towns/cities are fictional – they’re based on my knowledge of existing places but I design their features to fit my stories.
I guess this is in part because I’m not writing stories about a particular – real – place. The environment is the backdrop to my story, which is why I want to design it to suit my narrative.
I also love maps and always draw detailed street plans etc – which also helps avoid continuity errors when moving the action from location to location.
You’re creating location and definitely including it as part of your story. For many readers, Britain is exotic, and the way you incorporate your town allows them to visit, even if the names have been changed to protect the guilty.
I love that you make maps – what a cool thing to do!
I absolutely enjoy your writings. Such a gift and privilege to read your postings!
Thank you for your generous comments. I hope I always live up to your expectations.
‘Potatoing at your computer’. A phrase for the neologists in all of us.
Yup, and guess who taught me I could do that?
I’m glad you made this statement: “The places where our stories happen are as important as the characters that people them and the events that energize them.” I’m glad because I don’t know if I agree but it is something I’ve thought about and am interested in discussing. There are many, many successful stories that happen somewhere but not anywhere in particular, at least no more particular that “front yard”. Others thrive on the specifics and others, still, thrive on fictional specifics based on inspiring real places, say Winesburg, Ohio. But I’ve never felt that my locales held as much weight as my characters. I’ve never approached a story based on where it was going to happen but, more, whom it was going to happen to.
I think it’s great advice for a writer to research or “gather first-person evidence,” in whatever they want their story to boast–place, people, movement and thrust. I’d love to have a roundtable about this; I’d very much like to hear how many other writers approach “place” in the work.
You make a good point. A great story might have no particularly identifiable physical presence, a created identity doesn’t need to be based on authentic location or time period to feel real, and some adventures happen outside of time or place. You are always excellent at carving the other side of the coin.
I really dig witnessing different approach and love to hear where value lies with the artist, whether it’s part of a larger credo or just a way to go about a single piece. Glad to be part of our group to be able to have a discourse about this and other great writerly topics.
Yep – we’re gonna have to order a bigger water cooler.