“I cannot abide a story told to me by a numb, empty voice that never responds to anything that’s happening, that doesn’t express feelings in response to what it sees. Place is not just what your feet are crossing to get somewhere. Place is feeling, and feeling is something a character expresses. More, it is something the writer puts on the page- articulates with deliberate purpose. If you keep giving me these eyes that note all the details- if you tell me the lawn is manicured but you don’t tell me that it makes your character both deeply happy and slightly anxious- then I’m a little frustrated with you. I want a story that’ll pull me in. I want a story that makes me drunk. I want a story that feeds me glory. And most of all, I want a story I can trust. I want a story that is happening in a real place, which means a place that has meaning and that evokes emotions in the person who’s telling me the story. Place is emotion.” – Dorothy Allison, Craft Essays from Tin House
I’ve had a hard time writing and keeping up with my summer reading list (though I just finished a second book, watching everyone else’s progress has cemented my determination to finish all ten books by September!) after getting held up with a cold for one week, then camping in Monterey the following week, with my husband for our first year wedding anniversary. To combat this stunted period I thought I’d garner some inspiration for myself (and maybe some other writers slipping away from their work), by doing a brief weekly post called Craft Quotes – simply quotes I find helpful in explaining the writing craft, advice from talented authors and writers that expand new or seasoned minds in the creative writing process.
Dorothy Allison’s writing on ‘place’ is an entire chapter of lessons particularly useful for writers trying to give their work more substance and authenticity. When hitting a wall in your story’s plot try pulling back and focus on where the story is taking place. Why is this story taking place here? How does your character feel about this place? Why does he or she feel this way? Jotting down notes to questions like these help flesh out setting and a character’s connection to it, their motives and emotions. Even if none of this note taking ends up in the body of the story you gain greater understanding of realistic characters. Attaching real emotions to place allows the scene to grow from words on a page to tangible images and logic in a reader’s mind.
There are numerous layers needed to build a good story, and the fact that place is more than just where a story is happening goes largely ignored by writers and readers. I’m curious how other writers and readers deal with place. Do you incorporate setting into your writing or focus more on dialogue, characters, and/or plot? Do you feel that a lack of place sacrifices realism in a story? When reading, is a considerable understanding of place and how it relates to a character welcomed or a nuisance?