Place as person: Location, Location, Location!
An essential ingredient of story is the setting, the location, the place. It’s the first, best way to keep a reader anchored in the tale – to let them know very clearly where they are. And sometimes, if you do your job as a writer really, really well, the place becomes a character in its own right.
Whether you’re writing about your own back yard or Hobbiton, your reader needs to believe they are there; they are where you have put them. The world outside of the book must fade into the background – you want your reader to enter so fully into your story that they are anticipating the ripening of the apples in the orchard, or dreading the idea of the stench coming from the gutters of your gritty urban fantasy city.
There is no point writing – or indeed reading – something that puts you in a white room. You need to believe you are in the other world – that makes the experience so much the richer, so much more convincing.
One of the things I look for as a reader is that strength of place. The books I’ve enjoyed most over the years are those that have transported me somewhere else. Sometimes a writer’s ability to summon up a place is so strong that I will walk around with it as a layer over the real world for days – my head is elsewhere.
Jeff VanderMeer’s City of Saints and Madmen had that effect – can’t you smell the decay of the mushrooms, the dust of a city in decline? So did Catherine Valente’s The Orphan’s Tales – if you’re not certain that you’re sitting in the Sultan’s gardens being told about a ship that grew from a tree, then you’re not reading it right. Jane Gaskell’s Atlan series took me to the mythical land of Atlan and let me witness its last days and its fall. I walked the roads of Sheri S Tepper’s Lands of the True Game with Jinian Footseer, talking to animals and finding my way via the vibrations beneath my feet. Nancy Kress’ The White Pipes took me from rich, raw borderland castles to peasant pigsties with equal aplomb.
I read Lisa Hannett’s Bluegrass Symphony and wondered why, oh why, I could not find Tapekwa county and Two Squaw on a map. Miéville’s The Scar had me convinced I was on a floating pirate city rather than a bus, and that I should be looking for my cutlass. Stoker’s Dracula brought the Land Beyond the Forest to such striking life that one of my recurring nightmares is still set in the castle at the top of the cliff overlooking a ravine. I wake up feeling the cold breath of the full moon on my skin – sometimes I think the conjured landscape bothers me more than the vampires (these ones don’t sparkle and are consequently, effing scary).
When I wrote “Brisneyland by Night”, I wasn’t initially conscious of making my home city a character, but it was most definitely there, butting its head against mine and demanding attention. And one of the comments I frequently hear about this story is ‘I felt like I was in Brisbane – that I knew it.’ Huzzah! My work here is done. The story is now becoming a novel, and I’ve been wandering Brisbane to find other parts of the city that speak to me: I found a tiny church at Kangaroo Point that just cried out to be included – it also solved a plot problem for me. It is one of those places that breathes.
That’s another thing – places, like people, need to have a personality to make an impact. When I first travelled in Israel, the age of the stones beneath my feet and fingers was a constant amazement. No matter what religious affiliation a location had, it called out, vibrating with age and accreted stories – sedimentary layers of history and tales! Stand in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre or the Dome of the Rock and the space will talk to you if you listen. Linlithgow Palace in Scotland, now a shell, still has a voice, it just whispers nowadays. In Canterbury Cathedral, you can stand where Thomas à Becket fell and imagine his screams – well, I can, I’m a bit weird.
Places have souls. In York I visited Clifford’s Tower many years ago – where the city’s Jewish population committed suicide in 1190 rather than be taken by the ignorant medieval rabble outside. I made it up the tower but felt sick as sick can be, overwhelmed by history and the grief embedded in the stones. I had to leave. A few years later, I visited again – same thing. This time I couldn’t even enter the tower. Weird. Strange. Very annoying. But it happened nonetheless.
Places affect us. As humans we live and we hurl ourselves against this world; just like thrown mud some part of us sticks, is left behind. The transfer goes two ways and places rub off on us too. When a writer can capture and recreate this effect in their fiction, then the work sings. Then the place becomes a person – they are the ghosts we live in.
As a writer, I know my fictional world, but I need to make sure I get that information across to my reader. It’s not about giving every detail – it’s about giving the ones that are the most relevant, the most powerful, the most representative of what you want a reader to remember about the setting. Just as we fall in love with a character, we can fall in love with a place, with its charms, its quirks, its irritations, its greatness and its limitations. And, if we’re very lucky, we can always visit the places that live on in our heads.