Tag: place


Using All Five Senses

I tend to focus on the visual when I think about place, but I’m entranced by writers who describe a location with the other senses. It’s a skill I’m trying to improve in my own writing. So, here it goes for my trip to Utah: touch, sound, smell, and taste. Please add your suggestions!                                                   the chill of the shade on my skin as the sun set           the cheering of the crowd                                                                    a faint whiff of sage brush                                                                                                                                                  smoky, fatty pork drenched                                                                                                                                       in mustard bbq sauce                                                        

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Seeing with New Eyes

Snow in the Wasatch Mountains, court-side seats at a Jazz basketball game, a stroll around Temple Square, otherworldly rock formations at Arches, sweeping vistas in Canyonlands, bison and birds on Antelope Island, and the quiet beauty of Huntsville after a treacherous drive up rocky Ogden Canyon. I spent last week in Utah, a place I haven’t lived full time since I graduated from high school. After my son fractured his wrist snowboarding, my family made a quick decision to turn our ski vacation into a hiking vacation. We drove down to Moab. In a delightful coincidence, friends of ours from New York were there for a few days. Over a lunch of green papaya salad, beef noodles and curried chicken (yes, there’s a great Thai restaurant in Moab, Utah), our friends described the immense beauty of my home state.  I was about five the first time I remember traveling from our house in the alpine mountains in the north ofthe state to the red rock in the south. My child self assumed that everything I saw was normal. It took my friend, who lives a few blocks away from us on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, to remind me that it was pretty fabulous to be able to drive 45 minutes to world-class skiing and then several hours to spectacular desert hiking. Sitting in a Thai restaurant in Moab, I saw my state through new eyes. When we made our way back through the desolate beauty of southeastern Utah to Salt Lake, I appreciated the astonishing Utah’s topography. I’ve lived a lot of places in my life: Scotland, France, Germany, Russia, Massachusetts and Philadelphia. There’s something wonderfully special wherever you are. Sometimes, though, we get used to it. We stop seeing what makes where we are special. We stop seeing through new eyes.  I’m devoting this week’s posts to what makes setting—the people, places and things—compelling and unique. What would Nero Wolfe be without Manhattan and his orchids? Can you imagine Longmire any place other than Absaroka County, Wyoming?  Could Jimmy Perez exist outside of the Shetland Islands? My question for you is: what makes your setting unique and how do you describe it to those who don’t know it first hand?

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Finding Space and Place in a Caribbean Cottage

  In earlier posts, I’ve shared what it was like to come to the decision to downsize from a ten-room house by the ocean to a mobile home, which isn’t mobile, in outer Cape Cod. Part of that decision was motivated by a thirty-year desire to spend winters in St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where we had vacationed for decades. We’re just about to return to the “tindominium” on the Cape after our second winter here in St. John.            We are not living in a luxurious villa in St. John. We live in a sweet one-room cottage with a separate kitchen and a “bedroom area” next to our “living space.” There is a covered porch that runs the length of the cottage and overlooks Hurricane Hole. And there is a community pool for our tiny community of five.             Our winter cottage is in Coral Bay, where the bumper sticker, “We’re all here, because we’re not all there,” was inspired. We live among artists, writers, musicians, activists, and environmentalists, some of whom are supposed to be retired but you’d never know it. I’ve met real characters here that defy imagination and beg to be placed on a page. They don’t have to plead with me.            The transition to smaller quarters has been easier than we imagined, but we were really only living in three rooms in our former home in the end. The other seven were occupied by “stuff” now long gone, or at least most of it. Living in a warmer climate in the winter and on Cape Cod in the summer allows us to do most of our living outdoors. Our porch is where we perch most often when we are home. I write there, but also often take my laptop to a quiet shady spot on a beach where the fresh salt air seems to enhance my word count. There is a rooster who frequently visits me when I am writing. Sometimes he will sit on a branch and take a nap, occasionally opening one eye. Whether he is checking to see if I am still writing or that I’m keeping an eye out for him while he has his siesta, I don’t know, but it seems to be working for us.            How has life changed? We find that downsizing the size of our living quarters has made our lives huge. We have met many new wonderful friends with whom we share food, music, and island festivities. We don’t worry if we should be “working on the house” because we rent the cottage, which hasn’t diminished our affection for it as our little island home.             There have been some challenges. We have one car and one bathroom, but we’ve adjusted. Our kitchen is tiny but that didn’t stop us from cooking a kick-ass Bolognese and berry clafouti for friends the other night. Steve works part-time a few days a week at the local recycle center where he gets to meet lots of island folk and tinker with items they bring in to donate.  We’ve created individual space for each other even in a tiny cottage.             The sunrise each morning seems as if it were meant just for us. But soon we will be fluttering those wings we rediscovered and will return to our tindominium on the Cape with adventures planned in Provence, Dublin, and Virginia.                Writers often talk about “place” and how important it is to a story. I’m finding that it is the space I have cracked open within myself that is opening me to places I only dreamed about and letting me write my own story.     

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Someone else's room

 “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” I can’t comment on Virginia Woolf’s first ingredient for a successful literary career. Having money certainly helps. I’m fortunate to have a daytime situation, to borrow a phrase, that pays my bills. The security of knowing a roof over my head doesn’t depend on the number of sellable words I produce makes it easier to me to pursue a career in fiction. I imagine being penniless and worried about basic survival would make writing difficult but I don’t know about impossible.
As far as Ms. Woolf’s second ingredient? Her essay was written before Starbucks and co-working. Nowadays it’s possible to borrow or rent space in someone else’s room to write. I often do. I find it hard to work at home. Home signals my brain it’s time to unwind and recuperate from the day’s stress. Home is my hermit cave. My place to retreat and recharge. (Yes, I’m an introvert.)
Writing fiction isn’t stressful. I love writing. But it is work, at least when you get to the point you’re writing on deadline for a publisher. Since my mind equates home with anything but work I struggle to focus on the business of writing when I’m there. Plus, my day job starts early. Getting up at oh-dark-thirty to get ready and get there makes staying awake past eight pm difficult.)
Writing away from home boosts my productivity. The fiction flows easier when I’m not surrounded by things my brain associates with downtime. I write first drafts in long hand so even without nearly ubiquitous Wi-Fi and 4G and a computer small enough to slip into a large purse, I can work almost any place. But I have preferences. I choose public places so I’m not tempted to nap. I’d rather nap than eat so I write in public places where sleep is out of the question. I need some background noise. Not enough to distract me but enough to act as white noise which keeps me from paying attention to the silence. I’ve never lived way out in the country. I’m used to the buzz of the urban environment’s hustle and bustle. Table space is preferred but I can do without. I’ve worked crouched in a corner of an airport waiting area. Electrical outlets are a plus. I do, eventually, have to type what I wrote and a laptop’s battery never lasts as long as you need it to. Access to coffee is a bonus. Not mandatory but awfully nice.
I’ve written in libraries, airports, on airplanes (a great technique for avoiding being turned into a captive audience for an overly-chatty seatmate. Just don’t make eye contact.), in bookstores, in coffee shops, on trains, in restaurants, in hotel lobbies, even in concert halls during intermission. My two favorite writing places are in Dallas, Texas. How I miss them now I no longer live in the Big D. One is the communal table in the Joule hotel’s lobby. Handcrafted from reclaimed wood, it’s a work of art surrounded by the Joule’s other contemporary art works—paintings, sculptures, video installations. Writing at the communal table is like writing in an art gallery (which I’ve done). With built-in electrical outlets, a staff who doesn’t mind if you squat, and a coffee shop a few steps away finding a seat at the table on a weekday can be a challenge. Many downtown Dallas denizens find the communal table inspiring. But on weekend mornings and late evenings the table often sits deserted, waiting for someone to use it as a creative space.
Fort Work Co-Working shares the title of favorite. I considered renting an office to write but I didn’t need an entire office to myself and it would sit empty for most of the day while I worked at my full-time job. I only needed desk space. Behold, co-working. A monthly fee purchases access to desk space whenever it’s needed, which for me meant evenings and weekends. I’d grab a space at a desk near a window (Fort Work’s desks are communal tables like at the Joule but with a more streamlined appearance. No reclaimed wood. Plenty of outlets, though.) and write, surrounded by tech startups and entrepreneurs and with easy access to coffee and energy bars.
I will continue to struggle to work at home. Going someplace else to write isn’t always practical. But whenever possible I will search out space to borrow (or rent) in someone else’s room. Especially if that room comes with coffee.

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Strangeness of Place

People often ask me why I set my novel, Murder in G Major, in Ireland. I usually come up with a story about how Ireland is a locale where a ghost wouldn’t seem out of place but my protagonist would (I love a good fish-out-of-water story) but the true reason is as ethereal as my story’s specter. The setting just came to me.
The nidus of my paranormal murder mystery rests in a daydream I had. (Yes, I daydream movies in my head. It’s a great way to pass the time when you can’t decide on a book from your TBR pile and nothing in your Netflix queue appeals to you.) I imagined an African American classical violinist stranded in an Irish village with only the clothes on her back and her violin. And sometimes a harmonica. I imagined she won a prize for fiddling in a pub’s open mic contest and she used the money to rent a room above the pub. I remembered this daydream when a writing instructor asked “What’s your story about?” and it eventually became the backstory for my novel’s amateur sleuth.
But why Ireland? My fascination with Ireland defies logical explanation. I love Irish music, especially pub songs, Irish pubs, Irish whiskey, Irish festivals, Irish accents, Irish epithets Irish names, even Irish wolfhounds. (Although I have absolutely no space to keep one of these magnificent beasts.) I don’t know where I get it from. My surname is Scottish, of the great clan that spawned the legendary Gordon Highlanders. I didn’t grow up in Ireland nor in an Irish neighborhood. I didn’t know anyone Irish. My mother’s an Anglophile, not a Hibernophile. No one talked about visiting Ireland. My parents and I traveled a lot when I was a kid but Ireland never made the itinerary. If I, as a young adult, hadn’t planned a trip to Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland (with stops in London and Scotland at Dad’s request) my parents never would have set foot on emerald shores.
Where does my Irish-love come from? For the longest, I assumed it was “just one of those things.” Some people love France, some love Italy, some New York, some California. Me, I love Ireland. Just one of those things. So I thought. Until I discovered genealogical DNA testing.
Dad and I are genealogy buffs. We’ve managed to trace our family through censuses and social security death indexes and marriage certificates and draft cards along the paper breadcrumb trail from Oklahoma to Alabama and Virginia to the Carolinas. We made it as far back as the mid-1800s where we, like many African American family history researchers, hit a wall. Then Dr. Henry Louis Gates, host of PBS’s “Finding Your Roots,” started talking about DNA. I knew about DNA, of course. I’m a physician. DNA determined your eye color, your risk for certain diseases, and whether or not you were a crime suspect. And at big research institutions like National Geographic DNA helped sort out where humans originated millions of years ago. But Dr. Gates explained DNA could also help you figure out where your family came from a thousand years ago. Or five hundred years ago. Or a couple of hundred years ago. DNA testing had become simple and affordable and was now being used by family history researchers in a new (to me) field called genetic genealogy. I went online and Mom and Dad and I all got DNA testing kits for Christmas.
Guess what? I’m Irish. Fourteen percent, anyway. (Thirty-two percent Benin/Togo and twenty-four percent Cameroon/Congo, thanks for asking.) Slap my face and call me Shirley. Maybe my Hibernophilia isn’t so out-of-the-blue after all. Maybe it’s some sort of epigenetic love call, some trace memory of a long-forgotten ancestor. Or maybe not. Maybe it is just a thing. A thing I make no apologies or excuses for. A thing I enjoy. I’ll go on daydreaming about red-headed men with sexy brogues, drinking Irish whiskey while listening to the Dubliners, enjoying the craic at pubs and festivals, and setting stories in the land of storytellers. And when March seventeenth rolls around I’ll smile as I repeat the phrase, “Everybody’s Irish on Saint Patrick’s Day.”

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Writing Place

An author speaking at a writing seminar I attended commented it surprised him whenever someone complimented him on how well he’d described such-and-such a place, the geographic location in which he’d set his novel. His secret—he hadn’t really described the place. He included a few key details, aspects of the environment important to his point of view character, and left the rest to the readers’ imagination. He didn’t believe in complex descriptions of place.
I’m the opposite. I love stories that describe place so vividly I’m transported to the location and feel as if I’m walking the streets and eating in the restaurants and shopping in the stores alongside the characters. When Poe’s narrator approaches the House of Usher on the “dull, dark, and soundless day,” with “clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens” and sees the “bleak walls,” “vacant, eye-like windows,” and “rank sedges,” I’m right there with him and share his “sense of insufferable gloom.” The place becomes a character. New York City is as much a character in “Law and Order” as the detectives who investigate its crimes. Nero Wolfe’s brownstone is a character in Stout’s series just as much as Wolfe and Archie. Mitchell’s Slade House and Carroll’s Wonderland are the stars of their stories.
Some argue detailed place descriptions aren’t needed in the modern era when traveling halfway around the world is as uncomplicated as pulling up an airline’s app on your smartphone. Back in the day, authors had to describe their novels’ settings in detail because a reader in rural Pennsylvania was probably never going to travel to downtown Paris. Nowadays, even if that Pennsylvanian can’t swing airfare to the City of Light, she can visit virtually. Google Earth will let her zoom in until she can almost read the menu at a restaurant along the Seine.
So what’s a modern writer who loves rich descriptions of place to do? Invent one. World-building isn’t restricted to fantasy and science fiction. If you imagine a village, as I did in my novel, Murder in G Major, you have some license to describe what you’ve created. Readers can’t find satellite images of a fictional locale so you have to tell them where the pub is and whether the church is next to the post office or the school. When I write, I visualize my characters interacting with their setting, like watching a movie in my head, and put on paper what I see in my mind. I have difficulty writing without a sense of place.
One caveat. Internal consistency matters. Just because a place is fictional doesn’t mean the bus station can be on Tenth Street in chapter one but move to Fourth Avenue in chapter twelve. Unless, of course, you’re writing speculative fiction where moving bus stations is a plot element. I sketch maps to help me keep track of what’s located where.
Do you believe less is more when it comes to describing places or that less is less? Do you prefer locations real or imaginary? Or either so long as the writer transports you? (This blog post originally appeared on Club Hen House)

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