The Writers Circle: Writing on Location

One of our goals here at Today’s Author is to help all of the writers among us to do what we love to do: write. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by talking to each other and learning from each other.  Our Writers Circle series is designed to do just that – provide a chance for us to discuss writing, editing and publishing questions.

This week’s topic is:

Have you ever needed a change of scene in order to write a scene in your story? Have you needed to go to a place that resembles the one you are writing about? How does your physical location impact the story you’re writing? Does being in a location similar to the one depicted in your story help (or hurt) your storytelling in any way?

Let’s discuss this in the comments and see what our community thinks.


The Writers Circle: Where Do You Write

One of our goals here at Today’s Author is to help all of the writers among us to do what we love to do: write. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by talking to each other and learning from each other.  Our Writers Circle series is designed to do just that – provide a chance for us to discuss writing, editing and publishing questions.

This week’s topic is:

Every writer has a preferred writing spot. Perhaps it’s a desk in the corner of a quiet room, or the couch in the middle of the busy family room. Perhaps it’s a table in a local coffee shop.  Today we want to know where you like to write and what it is about that location that makes it your special spot.

Let’s discuss this in the comments and see what our community thinks.

Boots on the Literary Ground

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?


What a Great Place This Is

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.

Someplace in the World

WorldGlobesShariStories 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.