Friday, May 20, 2011

The Power of Place

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.

Here’s mine:

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.


  1. Wow, that makes me think of Grizzly Adams and the Sound of Music.

  2. I *loved* your post!

    I've always loved rich descriptions -- I call it scenery porn, haha. I'm playing with a WIP in a fictional world and have loved describing low-altitude farmlands and valleys vs. snowy peaks where the inhabitants can only grow x, y, z...which is, gasp, relevant to the plot!

    I think I kind of believe nature is a character unto herself, that reacts in her own way and is nearly always present, waiting to affect your story - if only you will let her.

  3. Susan, if I don't see this novel of yours finished and shopped, I'm going to hike it up to that mountain range and kick your butt! :)

    This post is beautiful in and of itself. But as to the teaching part, yeah, I think scenery is hella important.

    I love it when the setting conveys the inner feelings of the characters, or contrasts it to highlight the difference. As a reader, a book ought to have some scenery. If it doesn't, there had better be a reason for it --and sometimes there are good ones. But it had better be good! ;)

  4. Oh, Susan! Glorious photos and wonderful words! I'm always weakest on setting. I'm a bit scared to post a bit of mine, but here goes... ; )

    The spent crocus and daffodil leaves needed binding so the jewel-toned hyacinths would shine. Heavy stalks, dense with blossoms, perfumed the crisp air overwhelming the damp smell of cold earth. I uncovered the iris leaves just poking out of the mulch and smiled. Winter was gone and spring sun warmed my shoulders. How could anything be wrong when my hands could grub in the dirt and the vivid green of life filled my vision?

  5. Jillybean, scenery porn! LOL. Exactly. If your world is set in the future, or the historical past, or in a make-believe world, it's doubly important to have that solid setting established for readers. Contemporary fiction doesn't need as much.

  6. Kristen, come hike up the mountain regardless. :P

    I love a good setting too. Not a travelogue, but a good smattering of place reflected within the emotional landscape of the character.

  7. Oh, Zan Marie, your snip is lovely. It's got a sort of Spring-as-healing metaphor going, doesn't it? That's just what I mentioned in the post - that scenery can have great symbolism in it.

    Thanks for posting!

  8. Thanks, Susan. Unfortunately, trouble is about to shadow that lovely setting--of course. ; )

  9. Susan- great post, and I'm pretty much green with envy over your personal scenery (I'm partial to your fictional world, too, of course). One day I'm going to lob up on your doorstep to come visit your moose.

    @Zan Marie, I love your little snippet :) You have a really great talent for snatching up all the best details of a scene and stitching them into your writing in such a way that it all comes vividly to life and is full of meaning.

    I have a tiny snippet from some new writing (phew!) from recent weeks. I'm experimenting with a little present tense and using a previously secondary character as a narrator:

    The rain’s gone, but the wind’s still whipping up Main Street, thrashing the gums overhead and filling the night with rustles and groans. The moonless dark overhead is damp as a wet cloth, clouds pressing down on him til it’s hard to breathe. He starts out walking hard, hands jammed in his pockets, but by the time he’s past the bakery he’s running to get to the truck, his breath coming out of his mouth and into the cold like steam from a train.

  10. Claire - I'd be delighted to find you on my doorstep anytime. :)

    Love your snip. It's the aftermath of a rainstorm and the earth is still unsettled, much like the character. A great use of setting that mirrors the action/emotions of a character. (At least that's what I gathered from this small bit.)

  11. Susan, your writing is as beautiful as your surroundings. Get that book finished, girl! :-)

  12. Thanks Rachel! The book is beginning to stir again, I can feel it rising up within me.

  13. Pictures like these always stimulate my brain and get me to go that somewhere else to write. Great post!

  14. Gorgeous post Susan - and lovely scenery porn from you, Claire and Zan Marie! (great term, Jill!). Hmm, wonder if I have some? Kinda hard to find, this could be a problem.

    Okay, here's one (very much SFD):

    The port seemed to stretch on forever to either side, unfolding before her like a pageant. The sheer size of the city was overwhelming, with the high walls of the palace reaching up to the sky on their left, and the press of people on either side, all in their own boats, coming and going, as if gathered for a feast day. She asked Baha if there was any celebration taking place, but he shook his head. There was an expression in his eyes that she could not read, as he stared past her towards the walls and domes and minarets of the city of his birth. His fingers squeezed hers on the bench between them under cover of her cloak and she could swear his nose was twitching, as if the very smells on the air were familiar to him. Salt water and fish; the same odours that had trailed them along the length of their trip, but perhaps he was right, and there was something more. It might be a single scent that came from the masses of fishermen and sailors that lined the docks, or a mixture of all the animal scents, for there were donkeys everywhere, and horses swaying among knots of men with wide turbans, draped in flowing red and purple clothing, and even two camels, with large lips and spindly legs, tossing their heads hard by the edge of the water. She craned her neck, staring at them as they passed, creatures brought to life from a manuscript illustration.

  15. Deniz, your snip is lovely! It's full of wonderful sights, sounds and smells. You've put the reader right there on the docks of old Constantinople. (Love the camels!)

  16. Thank you Susan! I was surprised by the camels myself :-)