Writing (about) Place: How to wrestle “cosmos from chaos”

In this post, we are happy to introduce a new Restless Writer, Sharon Will, a communications professional and writer in southern Ontario. Sharon gathers some of her best tidbits from her two young sons, whose musings she captures in her Question Impossible blog. Sharon joins the other Restless Writers—Lori Dyan, Beckie Jas, and me, Maria McDonald—in talking about place.

Toronto CityscapeWhen I was at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference back in 2010, I had the pleasure of hearing Tim Wynne-Jones speak about “A Sense of Place.”

Wynne-Jones is a master of the writerly sound-byte. Among his gems that day: “Setting is not separate from plot or character.” “Don’t treat a setting generically—treat it as only you can describe it.” And my favourite: “Art is an attempt to wrestle cosmos from chaos.”

The main lesson I took from that lecture was that setting is never neutral. Setting is always a function of the person viewing it.

Place is an inextricable piece of the books I love. How could you read Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence without hearing the sound of bumblebees floating drunkenly amongst the lavender bushes? Or Cory Doctorow’s Makers without smelling the carbonite and IHOP permeating post-New Economy America? Or J.G. Ballard’s The High-Rise without wanting to barricade your doors against the menacing tribes emerging from the elevators?

“I love John Sandford‘s books, which all take place in Minnesota, often in the dead of winter,” said Lori when I asked her about the expression of place in her favourite books. “Sandford does an amazing job bringing the setting into the story almost as a character. The barren, gloomy landscape is a perfect complement to the creepy twists and turns of the plot.”

“I have always loved A Sand County Almanac, a 1949 non-fiction book by American ecologist, forester, and environmentalist Aldo Leopold,” said Beckie. “He creates an incredible sense of place with his writings of the natural world that take readers on a journey from the mountains and the prairies to the deserts and the coastlines. He creates an awareness of land as a living community to be loved and respected. He helps us see, hear, feel, and experience the land as it moves and breathes; Leopold calls this ‘the dark laboratory of the soul.'”

According to Sharon, “A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving is one of the first times I remember reading about a place that I knew (Toronto) in a piece of fiction. I also love Carol Shields’ novel Unless, which brings the streets and landmarks of Toronto to life.”

In my own work-in-progress, place and time intersect inMontreal in the 1990s. Montreal is close (ish) and I try to visit as often as I can. Luckily, I have my own memories as a McGill student to dig into. Reviewing newspaper archives, reading books by local writers, listening to music of the time and looking into popular culture—all that will help me immerse myself in place, and be able to see it through my characters’ eyes.

Sharon has an idea for a future project that would be set, in part, in Kingston. “In terms of research, for me it’s all about sticking with what you know. Having lived there during university, Kingston is a place that is close to my heart—I’m always keen to get back as much as I can (three times this past year). I’m really sensory in the way I file items to memory, smells, sounds, colours, etc. so taking in a city in person is ideal.”

But sometimes that in-person visit isn’t in the cards. For Lori, “My main character flees her suburban soccer-mom existence to have a mid-life crisis in a Malibu-type setting.” To get the flavour of California, Lori spent a lot of time on YouTube and Google to capture the West Coast sense of space. “You wouldn’t believe the people who’ve videotaped themselves driving the PCH from LA toMalibu. I wish I could’ve been there in person. Next time!”

“Place figures prominently in my middle-grade novel,” said Beckie. “Place was the inspiration for the story. The setting is based in my childhood memories of growing up in the country and moving to the suburbs. My book is currently on submission with editors, and the feedback from my agent is to ‘beef up the setting.'”

So how does one “beef up setting”? For Beckie, it means reading other books that capture similar settings. For Lori, it means consuming endless issues of InStyle and People. For Sharon, it could mean exploratory writing that helps pin down her own memories of life in Kingston.

For me, it means experiencing or imaging place with the curiosity of a tourist, the understanding of a resident, and the heart of a story-teller—and always keeping in mind how my characters would interact with the world around them.

What makes place resonate with you in the books you read—and how do you draw place into your own writing?

Maria

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