Episode 5 — Where the heck are we?
It seems obvious to me, but where the story takes place is one of the seminal parts of any story. I know there are writers (eg, Ivy Compton-Burnett and TK) who aren’t beholden to a strict sense of streets and borders, but even in that case, the reader has a sense of where things happen.
I still remember my fascination, as a kid, with the map at the front of The Hobbit. Despite it being wholly imaginary (at least I think it is), the trees of Mirkwood, the lowlands of Mordor and the Shire formed such an important part of the story that it wouldn’t have been the same had Tolkien not taken such care to ground the narrative in place.
In many instances, place can be the first concrete idea before a story blooms. At least two of my stories (that I can remember) started with the answer to where (in a park near the house I grew up in and on a lake where I spent many summers) before any traditional notion of plot came about. Indeed, just grounding a specific character in a particular spot can launch a story or novel as much as that dramatic climax that some work toward.
Philip Hensher wrote about the importance of place:
Often, when I think of a novel I love, it is not the plot that comes to mind, or even, sometimes, the characters, but the setting. They can be real places – the blackened London that Maggie and Little Dorrit wander through, one long night – or the visionary skied blankness at the beginning of Great Expectations. When the novelist’s eye falls on a particular stretch of earth, it can transform it for ever. I hardly ever walk towards the Royal Albert Hall, or through Peckham, or down Kings Road, without hearing Muriel Spark’s dry tones. The Girls of Slender Means, The Ballad of Peckham Rye and The Bachelors don’t render these places; they create them.
I agree. Whether it is Pencey Prep full of morons, Leopold Bloom in Dublin, or the towers of Hogwarts, the stories that really work have such a strong sense of where the events are happening that the story feels grounded. Place not only orients the reader, it can, if used well, give emotional and psychological depth to the events and characters that inhabit the story. No one will make me agree that without the Yorkshire moors, Wuthering Heights would have been as powerful a story. Heathcliffe on the beach simply wouldn’t have been the same.
So for this episode, let’s establish a setting. It may not go right after the paragraph we opened with, but it will go somewhere, even if it ends up in the background. Write it out. Use what you want. But ground your story in place.
Here is my offering:
My uncle’s farm was about an hour outside of the city, in the Caledon hills. His land fell from the farmhouse on top of a hill to the banks of the Credit River. 100 Acres of apple and pear trees, sunflowers and pasture, the land undulated east toward Highway 10 and north toward Orangeville. A herd of sheep and another of goats kept the grasses short except where fencing allowed the grass to grow over my head. Along the river, you could fish for trout, bass and pike. The forest that his house backed onto, was home to coyotes, deer and other small mammals.
For this week, describe the place where your story takes place. Be as detailed as possible. Make it as ‘real’ as you can (even if it is completely imaginary. Have fun with it. And, as always do it with intention: why this place?