Thursday, November 19, 2009

On Creating a Sense of Place

Nothing happens nowhere. Characters don’t live in a vacuum. That would suck!

Weather, locale, geography, culture, period, history, time/season—all create a sense of place. Setting--the time and place in which a story, play, or novel occurs--is one of my favorite craft elements.


I think Georgia O'Keeffe said it best: "One day seven years ago I found myself saying to myself — I can't live where I want to — I can't go where I want to go — I can't do what I want to — I can't even say what I want to … I decided I was a very stupid fool not to at least paint* as I wanted to." *Substitute the word "write" for "paint"...and you, um, get the picture.

Here are a few masterful examples:

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale: A chair, a table, a lamp. Above, on the white ceiling, a relief ornament in the shape of a wreath, and in the center of it a blank space, plastered over, like the place in a face where the eye has been take out. There must have been a chandelier, once. They’ve removed anything you could tie a rope to.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera: Independence from Spain and then the abolition of slavery precipitated the conditions of honorable decadence in which Dr. Juvenal Urbino had been born and raised. The great old families sank into their ruined palaces in silence. Along the rough cobbled streets that had served so well in surprise attacks and buccaneer landings, weeds hung from the balconies and opened cracks in the whitewashed walls of even the best-kept mansions, and the only signs of life at two o’clock in the afternoon were languid piano exercises played in the dim light of siesta. Indoors, in the cool bedrooms saturated with incense, women protected themselves from the sun as if it were a shameful infection, and even at early Mass they hid their faces in their mantillas. Their love affairs were slow and difficult and were often disturbed by sinister omens, and life seemed interminable. At nightfall, at the oppressive moment of transition, a storm of carnivorous mosquitoes rose out of the swamps, and a tender breath of human shit, warm and sad, stirred the certainty of death in the depths of one’s soul.
Jayne Anne Phillips, Machine Dreams: He’d longed to see an oak tree, a big oak with layers of limbs and summer leaves moving in wind . . . he’d wanted to see that, and women in dresses and stockings and heels. The palm trees were strangest at night because they were so big and womanly, tossing themselves and sighing, while the women in the camp wore fatigues and boots. 41st Engineers had arrived to construct the ramp and the airstrip, and the native men had still worn grass skirts. The skirts rustled as the dark men walked, their flat-footed storkish gaits rustling the grass in a way that was stern rather than girlish. . .The natives were in the camp at all hours and the skirts came to seem natural above their early hairless, muscled calves, natural on them rather than on the women, so that the outward things distinguishing men and women lost meaning. You noticed instead the wrist of a Red Cross girl, narrow and flat in the masculine greenish cuff of a fatigue shirt. The whole world was turned around like that. . .
Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye: School has started, and Frieda and I get new brown stockings and cod-liver oil. Grown-ups talk in tired, edgy voices about Zicks’ Coal Company and take us along in the evening to the railroad tracks where we fill burlap sacks with the tiny pieces of coal lying about. Later we walk home, glancing back to see the great carloads of slag being dumped, red hot and smoking, into the ravine that skirts the steel mill. The dying fire lights the sky with a dull orange glow… Our house is old, cold, and green. At night a kerosene lamp lights one large room. The others are braced in darkness, peopled by roaches and mice.
Robert Morgan, Gap Creek: Where somebody has buried cabbage, all you see is the roots sticking out of the ground like pigtails. Cabbages are buried upside down. I looked in the stubble along the edge of the garden, and in the edge of the orchard beyond the hogpen. There was loose dirt and weedstalks where the taters had been dug up, but I didn’t see cabbage roots. I searched along the pasture fence and didn’t see no buried heads there either.
Brock Clarke, An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England: There were no trees anywhere—it was as though Camelot had been nuked or had been the brainchild of the logging industry maybe—and each house was exactly the same except that some had powder blue vinyl siding and others had desert tan. There were elaborate wooden playgrounds in the backyards and mini-satellite dishes on every roof, and each driveway was a smooth carpet of blacktop and there wasn’t a sidewalk crack to trip over because there were no sidewalks, and each house had a garage that was so oversized it could have been its own house.

Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles: It was quiet in the deep morning of Mars, as quiet as a cool black well, with stars shining in the canal waters, and breathing in every room, the children curled with their spiders in closed hands.

1 comment:

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