Writing Takes Place

Recently at a conference I listened to editor Molly O’Neill talk about the importance of setting in writing. The topic wasn’t necessarily a new one, but it started me thinking more about the role of place in my own writing and in the writing of books I love.

There are some books where the place (real or imagined) is so vividly described that place becomes like an extra character in the story. These stories couldn’t happen anywhere (or anywhen) else. In an interview, Katherine Paterson described her struggle to write Jacob Have I Loved. The trick, for her, hinged on place:

I couldn’t start the book until I knew where it was set. I did all of these false starts. If you could see the mess I had trying to get that book started, you would see why it’s such a triumph to me that it ever got finished. But as soon as I knew where it was set, then it became a book because the Chesapeake Bay is as much of a character in the book as one of the people in it.

So, it was very important to me to finally find where these people lived, and then everything fell into place.

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Photo by Frank Spakowski, Wikimedia Commons

My favorite aspect of Laini Taylor’s recent Daughter of Smoke and Bone was its setting in Prague (one of the prettiest cities in Europe, in my opinion): the story felt as if it couldn’t have unfolded as it did in any other city. (And of course, the other exotic locations in the story didn’t hurt any.)

Of course, setting doesn’t have to be exotic to matter to the story you’re writing. Spatial theorists (and yes, there are a lot of people who spend their time researching the idea of space–I can give you names if you want them! I wrote my dissertation on the way that places influence our persuasive choices) argue that place matters because we live our lives within the social structures built up around particular places. Places influence how we think, how we talk, even how we act in particular situations. (Think, for instance, of the way you might act differently in a public park versus the parlor of a grand hotel). 

But most of the time, when we think about setting, we think strictly about the physical locale where a story takes place: what the climate is like, what the population density is, what the standard of living is, etc.  However, I want to suggest that place is much more than that, and by thinking about other dimensions of place, we can arrive at a much richer use of space in our writing.

For me, place involves at least three aspects.

1. Physical place (as we usually think of it).

2. The language we use to talk about a particular space. Like any other cultural product, we interpret places through cultural lenses–you can’t write about a space without engaging those discourses. (Simon Schama has a fascinating book on landscape in art; Gregory Clark has written about how writing about the national parks in the U.S. has conditioned us to experience the national parks as a kind of ritual of citizenship; Krista Comer writes about how landscape plays a fundamental role in fiction about the American West).

Think, for instance, of the stereotypes that surround the American West. Or the South. These aren’t parts of the physical landscape, but they influence the behaviors of characters within these spaces (whether they’re choosing to embrace a stereotype or reject it). Most of us come to new places with expectations that are built on what we’ve already heard about that place.

3. The relationships that form within these spaces. This may seem obvious, but it’s an aspect of place that people often overlook when describing their “setting.” A story about a businesswoman is necessarily going to deal with the relationships that form within a business hierarchy; a novel about middle school is similarly going to have to deal with the way the expectations of a middle school affect the relationships of the characters.

My hope here is that thinking about the physical nature of a place, the discourses we use to understand that place, and the relationships within those spaces, can help us think about the setting in our own stories in more complicated (and more complex) ways.

What about you? What aspects of setting fascinate you the most? How do you go about developing setting in your own work?

2 thoughts on “Writing Takes Place

  1. This is one area where I know my ms could use some work, and you've given me plenty to think about. The book I've read recently that has the strongest sense of place might be The Scorpio Races…

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