Uncategorized The Importance of Place

The Importance of Place

The Importance of a Sense of Place
I remember being told in a graduate fiction creative writing course by John Dufresne 
that I use “excruciatingly tangible details of place.” And this is still true in all of my
writing.  I want to put the reader there.  PLACE is super-important in fiction, memoir
and poetry.  It is where you ground your characters, so the reader has a clear picture of
where the action is taking place.  And because they are grounded when these character
use dialogue they are not just “talking heads” suspended in space.
Place to some extent is synonymous with setting and if it is strong enough can
almost portray a character in the work. For instance Jack London’s wilderness
(place) is so convincing that it becomes the actual antagonist in his short story,
“To Light A fire,” in which the main character dies because he’s out in the wilds
and doesn’t know how to properly light a fire.  London gives us the setting of
the outdoors in severe, frigid, wintry weather, and plenty of snow with night
descending while his character is trying to light a fire from a single match to
keep from freezing to death. 
Place can be a kitchen, the woods, a church, the dining room table, etc.  Once
you chose the location here’s what happens—let’s say I chose the dining-room
table at Thanksgiving.  Mood and theme immediately enter our brains as well. 
Is it a happy time, sad? Perhaps because of a recent death in the family we have
the added perspective of grief looming.  Crepe is hanging from the mirror over
the sideboard.  Is the food on the table going to speak to the reader about what
kind of family this is, what kind of kinky hang-ups they have?
In reading Jonathan Franzen’s quirky, wonderful novel, The Corrections, we get
a scene at the dinner table where Al and Enid and their two little boys Chip and
Gary are partaking of a really yucky meal.  Enid has served the small children a
mound of overcooked rutabaga, liver, and turnip greens, if recollection serves me
well.  So the older boy Gary eats up everything and pleases the mother, while the
younger son goes through all sorts of machinations not to eat, and at first the
father helps him by polishing off some of the food on Chip’s plate and then says
that if the Chip eats everything he can have dessert.  The mother states she has
pineapple, the father says that if he eats the dinner he should get something like
a cookie. The mother doesn’t budge, the older boy eats the pineapple, and the
Dad feels threatened, guilty what-have-you—lots going on in his thoughts as
well as the table.  I think I got this right—finally the father gives the order that
Chip will not have dessert and will not move from the table till he finishes eating.
This creates conflict and tension and many other opportunities for motivation,
cause and effect.
Another example of the significance that a scene can play using a strong sense
of place is from Amulya Malladi’s The Mango Season. Malladi makes use of place—
the heart of the house, in this case an Indian kitchen.  It is here where three
generations of women, plus a sister-in-law and a cousin are cutting mangoes in
order to pickle them, and where a lot of intimate family details are revealed with
a quite a bit of cattiness, which displays each characters’ personality, traits, and
gives the reader insights into family and its hierarchy.
These are only a few examples of place in fiction.  In poetry, what first comes
to mind first is the strong sense of place that echo the themes and geography
of New England.  Maxine Kumin uses features and topographies of her world
and in her poetry.  In her fourth collection, Up Country, the poems are inspired
by her life near the woods and on the farm, and the collection was awarded the
Pulitzer Prize. Another poet who uses terrain and countryside as background
for his poetry is Robert Frost.  Yet another is Mary Oliver.  But any good poet
worth his/her words knows instinctively that the backgrounds, backdrops and
backcloths of good poetry are necessary elements of craft to build the poem.  
When I write poetry, fiction or nonfiction, the people I use for characters are
portrayed in different scenes. Usually images of places come to mind first before
I start a first draft. In my poem “The Death of August” the reader knows
immediately where the scene is happening.  We get the landscape and panorama
and a picture is sharply painted. Here are the beginning lines:
            Last eventide before Corsican starfall
            we watched sunfire slip to its descent
            beyond the mountain that is Bonifacio.
In my short story, “The Other Side of the Gates,” the main character Oreste Spano
is a prison cook. So naturally we will see him at work cooking in that old kitchen. 
Here’s the opening of this story.
Oreste Spano struck a match against the Regina Coeli prison’s kitchen wall.
Lighting a cigarette, he thought of his children.  He’d risk anything to see them.
When the cigarette burned down and he felt the heat on his lips, he took three
long drags and flicked it upwards.  The cigarette ricocheted off the rusty iron
window frame. It glanced off his shoulder, bouncing onto the floor.  Spano
crushed it.
The use of solid, concrete objects and characters in a particular surrounding
or place can only infuse the writing with force that spells control and the sense
that this writer knows where he’s leading me, the reader.
Excerpt from my short story “The Thief” published in the collection: 
The Other Side of the Gates (10/2014)
           
Thieving always came easy to me, and I enjoyed it.  I practiced, raising
my skill to an art form, but never realized there was something more
important I needed in my life until I walked onto the promenade deck
of the Oceana.  It was a revelation that shook every fiber of my muscles,
but I didn’t learn its importance until that day in May, 1988 when I
reached the marketplace in Cairo, and stepped into the El Calili souk. 
             
I stopped by the railing as the ship hit some nasty weather. 
The boat rocked and pitched and my footing was unsure.  I had
noticed a knockout bookish type with a beard and horn-rimmed
glasses at the fire drill earlier.  He seemed a little stuffy, and
reminded me of someone, but I couldn’t place whom.  The man
was six feet of delicious.  I’m a tiny girl, bottle blonde and have
been described as a pixie, a word I hate. 
From the corner of my eye, I watched him stroll around, and
then it happened.  He casually bumped into an elderly gentle-
man and lifted the man’s wallet.  Now, for sure, I was
determined to make his acquaintance. 
           
I pretended not to have seen him, turned abruptly, and crashed
him.  Fortuitous?  Hell, no.  Calculated! 
           
“I beg your pardon,” he said and introduced himself. “I am
Count James Ausberry-Bickerford Contraire.” 
           
In my heart I knew he wasn’t a Brit, and no way a count, but
my lineage couldn’t even lay claim to being a Jewish-American
Princess from New York’s lower eastside.
 “Pleased to meet you.” I offered my hand.  “Marchesa Titi
Patagonia,” I said, dreaming up a title and hoping we would
hit it off.  Our meeting electrified the air like the ensuing storm. 
He kissed my hand, and with him still holding it, my other hand
was on his money clip.  Destiny? I left nothing to fate’s whimsies.  
I laughed at his formality.
            “My dear,”
                                                                        “You have a wonderful laugh.”  He extended his palm for his
money clip,                                                      money clip and moved his fingers as if to say, Give it back.
           
“Caught!”  Not just me, but him too.  I wanted him to think he
was dealing with a rank beginner.  
             “It doesn’t appear that you’re in need of money.”  He sounded
aloof, but no way off-putting.  He gave me a gander, approved.
             
I was about to hand him back his money clip when I declared,
“Sorry, I never restitute stolen goods—contrary to my principles. 
I’ll treat for coffee.  This type of stealing isn’t my specialty, but I
was dying to try it after observing you at work with that man over
there.”  I pointed to the elderly gentleman, struggling to open the
heavy door that led to the game room. 
           
The Count hooked my arm, and his touch registered TILT on my
mental pinball machine so much so that I placed my hand on my
racing heart.  
            “Are you unwell?” he asked.
I couldn’t be better, but went mute, thinking maybe romance
was also in store for me, not just a possible business partnership. 
He escorted me towards the old man. “You saw me relieve the
gentleman of his purse?  I had mistakenly assumed that my
performance had gone unobserved.  An oversight.”   He bent down
with the man’s wallet in his hand, straightened and said, “Sir, I
believe you dropped this.” He then opened the heavy steamer door
for all three of us.
This essay first appeared on www.bridlepathpress.com 11/2013