The first words, the first sentence – we writers must get them perfect. It’s the only chance we have with most readers – irritate or confuse them and our story becomes a football. Films have it much easier. A captive audience, engaged by so many sensory activities at once: compelling music, clever camera angles, images of all kinds, words and names, snappy or threatening dialogue, and all of that in only a few seconds. In the first minute folks know whether or not they’ll stick around for the next two hours, and it’s likely most do. A creation of the labor of hundreds, even thousands of people, films also have the advantage of social interaction. People go to the movies or sit in their homes with their best friends and eager strangers to experience a film as a group, sharing the wit, mystery, silliness, fear, humor, and delight on the screen.
Writers cannot be filmmakers. We don’t make movies with all the multidimensional aspects of film: costumes and make-up, locations and sets, music and background noise, zooming the camera in and pulling it back, showing multiple scenes on one screen, editing out distracting images, following the action of the characters or moving around them as they remain still. A book must contain every aspect of action, character development, clever dialogue, and unique setting with none of the multidimensional layering of film. But there’s the problem – if we write too much, we risk boring our readers. The more we put in words and descriptions, filling pages with every possible angle, response, and internal thought of our characters, the more we detract from the action and deflate the power of the story. Writers count on readers to add the full panoply of sensations, what exists and is thought about during any one single moment of a story.
Enter one of the most persuasive characters of a story: location. It’s the prime real estate of a book, literally the waterfront property, or mountain cabin, or desert hideaway that contributes an urgent angle to the plot. Lock step with time frame, location confirms the action of a story. Consider the hidden encampment of Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain of North Carolina where Confederate deserter Inman heads home to meet his sweetheart, Ada. The primitive, rugged terrain of Cold Mountain echoes the circumstances that Ada and Inman are reduced to living over the course of the book. The more they retreat from civilization, the closer they move toward each other, the more the foreboding character of the mountain informs the plot. Based on the life of Frazier’s uncle, the story could not take place anywhere but Cold Mountain – ominous, dreary, and promising all at once.
Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone follows the birth, childhood, and eventual medical practice of one brother of a set of twins born in Ethiopia. The country’s twentieth century history of rule by Haile Selassi and the rebellions that tried to depose him are intertwined with the complex story of the brothers and their divergent life paths. Verghese presents the conflicting world of Ethiopia, a country with a huge Indian population that often supplants the needs and rights of the indigenous people. Ethiopia provides an echoing backdrop for the conflict between the brothers whose contentious relationship is clinched by their relationships with a young woman.
Frazier and Verghese know their territories well, each having lived and explored where their stories take place. The descriptions of Cold Mountain and Ethiopia are authentic, established with both epic sweep and details that invoke intimacy. Inman sees Cold Mountain as the place that will heal and save him, give his soul respite from the savagery of the war, and grant a future with Ada. Every American kid learns about the Civil War, but Frazier’s retelling turns dry facts into unforgiving despair. In Ethiopia where access to medical help is determined by one’s wealth or constrained by tribal superstitions, a patient assumes he will die of his illness. It’s an idea that is anathema to us in the United States where we expect advanced medical skills to save us from everything. These two stories could only happen on these particular soils.
Creating an authentic sense of place draws from memory and utilizes research. For my own books I’ve been fortunate to be able to recall numerous details of places I’ve visited or lived. I’ve also had the serendipitous experience of meeting people who have personal knowledge of the places that are crucial to my story, and often know firsthand about some of the events that I write about. Interviews with them, photographs, maps, and newspaper articles have further broadened my grasp of the places where my stories take place. Google Earth even verified for me that an existing hill in Orange County could indeed provide the empty plot for my book family’s home to be built in The Tree House Mother. All the streets named in the book can be found on maps except for the tiny street where the tree house was propped in a pepper tree. That one street is a fabrication, a fiction of my imagination, but the rest of the descriptions are true to the lumpy hills of Orange County. You can drive up to the top of Skyline Drive to find the overgrown lot where the Youngs’ family home once stood. You can tramp the wild chaparral where Andie sat on the side of the access road and watched a parade of cars. This place is as important as any other character in the story.
Perhaps the most important part of writing about a particular place and incorporating it into a story is to be in love with it, enchanted with its terrain and smells, irritated with its lack of streaming water or exotic flora, excited by its hidden paths. If “X” marks the exact spot on a map, if the GPS can find it, if readers can imagine standing on our plots of virtual real estate, then that is just one more compelling reason to read our stories.