“Fiction depends on its life for place.”
“Fiction is properly at work in the here and now.”
“The work of a novelist is making fake biography.”
“If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are.”
Consider the importance of the ocean on Ishmael in Moby Dick. The effect of the river on Huck in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or the moors on Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. Creating a sense of place is one of the key demands of being a fiction writer — and the writers we all most admire are almost without question able to conjure up a strong feeling of time and place in us as readers. Wherever they set their stories, we come to feel and see that place as real — and to appreciate its compelling influence on both their characters and how those characters’ destinies play out.
How do writers evoke a sense of place in their readers in a fresh and exciting way? This was the intriguing question was posed in a wide-ranging talk at the Montclair Public Library by Ann Mckinstry Micou, who’s studied the effect of place on three New Jersey-based, Pulitzer Prize-winning writers: Philip Roth, Richard Ford, and Junot Diaz. How do these writers make us feel as readers that we are right with them, wherever they want us to be? Among Ann’s findings:
They stress “hereness” — They use all the tools at their command to generate the physical and psychological dimensions of place — its weight and feel.
They often use first-person narrators — Adopting this point of view instantly creates a sense of “hereness,” since we are seeing what narrators see through their own eyes and filtered through their own mind and insight — or lack of it.
They use precise, granular description — Employing prose that is “exact, detailed, and particular” is one of the most powerful techniques for creating a sense of “hereness.” “Abstract, vague, generic” references are avoided.
They invoke and evoke memories of the past — A strong sense of place is “inextricably linked to memory of the past,” Ann observed and the “past is insistently present in the here and now.” Remembering the past is always an act of the imagination: As Philip Roth notes, memories are always “memories of your imagining the past.” To remember is to imagine — and strong writers know this and use it to make the past come alive in the present and in doing so, to root us as readers in the places of their choosing.
The power of place: Let’s plumb its mysterious depths as we all write on!