My home is down there.
My very ordinary days are lived on a canvas of amazing grandness. The scale of my surroundings leaves me breathless. I sometimes forget to look up, to see the beauty around me and then, when I do, I’m humbled.
Living here, deep in this valley, has taught me to observe the seasons in new ways. I don’t count the days the same way as I once did . Now, the seasons are defined not by the calendar, but by the movement of the sun. It rises at the head of my valley, above the glaciers that feed the river flowing below my house. In the winter, the sun is low to the earth, so far south that it doesn’t rise above the rugged peaks beyond the river. In the summer, it hardly sets before it rises again and we work and play in endless daylight.
I also count the passing seasons by the river, by the way the water is black and nearly still in the early spring, before the glaciers begin to melt and move and give up their cement-colored silt. In the summer the river is an opaque gray, deadly with its frigid temperature and rapid movement. The sandbars are littered with the tracks of bear, coyote, snowshoe hare, and a host of small birds. In winter, it is silent. A frozen pathway in the forest for wolves and the occasional snow machine.
The moose pond is another testament to the changing seasons. In summer, we can count on seeing moose there, standing in the shallow water feasting on the plants. In early spring there is a pair of trumpeter swans who stop for a few days on their way north and again on their way south - a sort of flyway motel, I suppose. I’ve come to expect the swans and I’m delighted every time they arrive.
In my daily life, I experience the power of place. It not only leaves me awed, it has become part of the rhythm of my life and I am richer for it.
Fiction, too, is richer for having the power of place. Of the three main elements of fiction - plot, character, and place - it’s often the one that gets short-changed. It’s a mistake to let that happen, since the setting is the stage on which all else takes place. A serious writer realizes that setting is another tool to be employed in the skillful building of their novel.
Setting, by definition, includes the location of the plot, but also includes the forces influencing the characters such as weather, the time of the day, the season, the exteriors and interiors of the places your character goes. Setting and pacing can suggest the movement of time or lack of it. It sets the mood or the atmosphere of the scene. It can even become a metaphor or a symbol.
Readers rely on the power of place to ground them in the story, to put them in the pages with your characters. Done skillfully, setting becomes an authentic place and convinces readers that the story really happened. Author Jessica Page Morrell writes in Between the Lines, “If you’ve created an environment that a reader can see, hear, and experience, he’ll believe in the actions that happen in a story… events are believable because the reader is anchored in the story world.”
Story world. What’s your world like? Have you built it from the ground up? Or is it still a nebulous thing? There are instances in my own writing where the world of my character nearly drowns in exposition. Not quite a travelogue, but picturesque and now I know, completely unnecessary. Those places are being trimmed and integrated into the scene so that readers see it through the eyes of the character. Setting is vital, but it takes skill to use it effectively.
I’ve been blessed with a life lived in many lovely locales, from the rolling green vineyards of the Napa Valley, to the golden foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, to the warm sandy beaches of Florida. In each place I found uniqueness and beauty that inspire me. Perhaps it’s the places I’ve been that have made me who I am - an observant person, one who revels in the power of place. Or perhaps I would be that way no matter where I lived.
I hope that my writing reflects the power of place that I’ve come to appreciate in life. I see my characters against the canvas of my story, not separate from it, not acting in a void. My challenge, however, is to let readers into that story world to experience it too.
It’s also my challenge to you. What do you want your readers to see? If you’re willing, post a short “power of place” snip for us.
Impressions tumbled about in his head in untidy chunks, like a child’s colorful building blocks scattered on the floor. He recalled daylight, brilliant and painful, and the deep purple stillness of night, and a kaleidoscope of feverish images.
A certain, dogging fear struck at his core as only a man missing memories can know. It gnawed at him until he knew he must ask someone. And the very asking would be to admit things he wanted to deny.
The pale, undefined light of dawn grew bolder, filling the small room, giving it form and substance and dispelling the feverish illusions of the night. All was ordinary here. His uniform still hung on the door of the armoire. His things were still in the place he’d left them — except for his wallet, which lay open on the dresser. Someone had been through it.