Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Where The Heck Are We?

Harbor in Falmouth, Cornwall UK

A lot has been written about paying attention to the sense of place in the stories we write. Only yesterday, I read a good article highlighting the topic in the October issue of The Writer magazine. Last spring, at my critique group's conference, one of our outside speakers (as opposed to members in the group who spoke) was an editor who discussed the importance of place in writing. She gave us some exercises which we did on the spot. 

Several read what they'd written aloud. As the words floated through the room, the rest of us gained some terrific mental pictures. We knew exactly the kind of place the writer was transporting us to. We could hear it, see it in our mind, almost smell it. Sensory details are of great use in establishing place.

When you begin to read a short story or a novel, or even a memoir, you want to know where you are. Is it city or rural? Mountains or seaside? Bleak or beautiful? Industrial or upscale shops? The problem comes when the writer knows where the place is but doesn't convey it to the reader. In other words, I, as the writer, know the place well but unless I show it to the reader, they're going to feel like they're floating in space.

When friends or family move from one home to another and you haven't had an opportunity to make a visit, you can't picture their surroundings. You might talk to them on the phone and they mention they are just cleaning up the kitchen after dinner. Fine. But you have no clue as to what that kitchen looks like. Is your friend wiping down black granite countertops or white formica? Is the fridge white or stainless steel? Is the room huge or a small utility type kitchen? After your first visit to see this new home, you'll have that sense of place whenever you call or think about the person, or send a birthday card. You have to see it to have it.

That's the job the writer has--to let the reader see where the story happens. It's tempting to write several paragraphs describing the place, but I think a far better way is to weave it in around whatever is going on with the first character we meet in the opening of the story. 

The picture at the top of today's post was one I took when we visited England earlier this summer. Use it to try a quick writing exercise. Write a few paragraphs showing us where this is. Note that I said show. Telling us about it is far too easy for the writer, far too mundane and can be a bit boring to the reader.

Now try it again in the picture below. This is a favorite picture of one of my longtime friends. I love it because of who is in the picture but I also love this picture because of the place it was taken. It's a place I know well. Can you show us the kind of place it is?

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