I recently finished reading In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. This book is purportedly the first creative nonfiction book ever written—in writing it, Capote created a genre that has seen continued success and interest (Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild and Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks are two such creative nonfiction books that have seen huge success in recent years).
In Cold Blood is a chilling book about a quadruple murder of a well-liked and prosperous family in rural Holcomb, Kansas in 1959. The book is novelistic in its presentation: Capote interweaves dialogue, description, and a fragmented storytelling structure to create suspense and tension. The novel is written in such great detail that you can’t help but feel Capote was right there in the room with his characters, and in some cases he was.
This brings me to the theme for this month’s posts: setting. Capote spent six years, on and off, in tiny Holcomb, and the slightly larger neighboring town of Garden City (where the two murderers were eventually tried). He stayed in motels, interviewed the town’s people and killers alike, waited around for developments in the case, and breathed in the atmosphere of that town, literally. His boots were on the ground.
For those of you familiar with creative nonfiction, you know that it is a more artistic form of journalism (no slight meant to the journalists out there). It takes elements of journalism and reporting (interviews, historical information, site visits, patience) and overlays an engaging narrative across all of it. Understanding a story’s setting, its place, is crucial to the development of a news story, and equally so to the development of a creative nonfiction piece.
In the opening paragraphs of In Cold Blood, Capote deftly sketches the town of Holcomb and the surrounding landscape. His description is precise, careful, and masterful—the reader is transported there. As the book continues, so does the depth and detail of its description. Capote introduces the reader to “characters,” describes their features, their mannerisms, their speech patterns; he shows us the few hours before the family of four was murdered: the weather that day, the moods of the family members, the lay of the family farm; he shows us into the lives of the two murderers, their motivations, and their character flaws. At times, Capote’s book is almost too intimate: we are so close to the characters, we are so familiar with the landscape.
None of this intimacy could have been created, I believe, had Capote not decided that he had to go to Holcomb. His art was elevated because of this choice.
As a poet, this boots-on-the-ground mentality is not one I’m particularly familiar with. Setting or landscape in my poetry often refers to internal landscapes or imagined ones. I suppose you could say my boots are on my ground (my mind, my emotions), if I can extend the metaphor that far, but not in the same sense as Capote, Krakauer, Skloot, or any other creative nonfiction writer might experience.
While it’s true that I’ve written some poems based in and on specific places, my representation of those places has, for the most part, been cursory and more impressionistic than realistic. A single fact about a town, or the way that light falls in an alley, or a scent, or my general mood in that landscape is enough for me to go on to create a poem, which in the end will only loosely be related to that specific place. It’s like a movie that’s “based on actual events,” which really only means that one or two things might be true.
I love creative nonfiction, and I have great admiration for writers of it, in part because it requires the writer to insert him- or herself into an unfamiliar setting and to make it so much his or her own that the reader is convinced the representation is true and coming from someone in the know.
In the coming months, I’d like to think about how to incorporate this element of up close and personal setting exploration in my poetry. I’d like to engage in site visits, and see how that intimacy colors and shapes my writing.
Who’s up for a field trip?