Sparked by Words

Someplace in the World

Stories happen someplace in the world, but not just anyplace. Someplace special where I will take you. That’s the purpose of writing about specific locations and historical periods, and incorporating them into our stories. We writers take our readers to places they may never have been at times they couldn’t have traveled. Try to imagine Khaled Hosseini’s young runner, Hassan, chasing a blue kite down the sidewalks of Parkway Avenue in Trenton, NJ rather than across the snaggletoothed alleys of Kabul, Afghanistan before the revolution. Doesn’t have the same panache. Or consider Charles Dickens’ famished Oliver Twist begging for soup from the cafeteria lady at the school lunchroom instead of the miserly master of a workhouse in 1800’s London. Not nearly as desperate. Floating in a hot air balloon over Albuquerque is daily business compared to the heart stopping thrill of balloon racing around the world for 80 days at the imagination of Jules Verne. You can’t gallop the Pony Express in Manhattan or mush the Iditarod in the Everglades.

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The places where our stories happen are as important as the characters peopling them and the events energizing them. When well realized, each complements the others and creates memorable images that propel the plot. More, the plot is possible because of specific locations. Even if you have never visited Kabul, Trenton, the Great Plains, Nome, or hitched a ride in a balloon gondola, you have a sense of the roiling sky above, the smell on the street, the sounds pummeling your ears, the motion that nearly makes you sick. Ignore location in your books and run the risk of readers dismissing your work. “Where in the world does this take place?” you can hear them ask, and if they do, you have failed.

How then, to include a genuine scene of the exotic or extinct in your story, to be in that place at that moment when you’re potatoing at your computer? My own stories have begun as much in a place as with a hero and a quest. They are lock stepped into a setting as distinctive and essential as The Great Wall is to China, into a period as horrific as the Inquisition is to fifteenth century Spain. The Inlaid Table was born in a shtetl in Poland between the two world wars and otherwise would have been a laminated TV tray. Where Did Mama Go? is as fastened to the current zeitgeist of Alzheimer’s discourse as cell phones are glued to teenagers. The Tree House Mother would only have been a description of a backyard fort were it not for the twisting narrow roads that confounded fire departments when Lemon Heights (Orange County, California) burned in the 1960’s.

Our house was only a few miles from the center of that inferno. I remember the billowing black smoke that rained ashes on the flatlands where we lived. If there is an authentic voice to the fire in my story, it’s because of a bit of luck forged years before. My parents were longtime friends with a married couple who lived in the hills. When the fire ignited, our family worried for everyone, but we knew who we worried for the most. Their friends were safe and their house remained intact, but many years later the woman proved an amazing source of first hand information. I recalled a lot about that week but I hadn’t been in the hills, only a hilltop from the flames. She had.

I phone interviewed Anita many hours over several days, then met with her in a restaurant where I sensed the anxiety she’d felt all those decades past. She told me things no one had reported, details that give flesh to a skeleton of an event. About the lost fire trucks, the panicked horses, the police coming around twice to warn people to evacuate, the manager who stood on the roof of the water department building and watched the fire leap ridge lines.

Then she brought out a packet of saved newspapers in a plastic sleeve, an entire journalistic rehash for two weeks of detailed reporting, and allowed me to take them home. Studying those papers was a boon I couldn’t have planned. Small town reporters know that a once in a lifetime opportunity to write up something other than high school football scores and lost dogs is to be mined for every ounce of fool’s gold and diamond dust, because it might be the only chance to move out of the minor leagues up to the real deal. The local newshounds honed their skills with attention to detail, fact collecting worthy of the FBI, and local color so neon that everyone knew exactly who’d been interviewed and which houses had burned. Thank you one and all, you young cubs, and I hope you went on to bylines and columns of your own.

I studied the papers, I re-wrote my notes, I pondered, and had plenty of true life detail to write into my otherwise fabricated story. My hero, a figment of my imagination, got sidelined by horses fleeing down the road. She gave directions to lost firemen. I know from personal experience the acrid scent of smoke, how hot are raging flames, but the frightened horses and lost firemen – that was the contribution of my friend, Anita. She doesn’t write stories but she remembered.

Do whatever you need to gather first person evidence. If you can’t interview Columbus or visit Timbuktu in order to write your story, scour diaries, census records, personal letters, almanacs, ship registers, train schedules, old maps, and warehouse supply lists. Snoop where snooping will unearth something useful, even though you won’t know how useful till you’re writing. Get those facts and thread them into your story so your reader will smack his hand against his head and declare, “Feels like I’m right in the middle of this.”

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Comments on: "Someplace in the World" (32)

  1. Incorporating setting as a vibrant part of the story is something I still need to conquer as a writer, at least in terms of geography (in terms of other settings, like a hospital setting, I’m very comfortable creating that given my background). I think setting is critical to include and yet one of the more difficult elements to tackle. These are great tips you offer. I like the idea of getting first-person narratives to make things more real and personal.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Actually, Carrie, I would include a hospital as a setting since that’s the place where the crimes in your books happen. It depends on how essential are the particular location and time slot for any story whether these should realize a stronger presence.
      I just read Thirteen Moons by Charles Frazier who also wrote Cold Mountain. With both books he had to know a great deal about the places the stories occur but also about their appearance and texture in the seventeen and eighteen hundreds. He read many books and he probably traveled a great deal and interviewed people as well. I think there’s an emotional truth that informs well researched fiction that unadorned history can’t access. I already knew about the betrayal of the Cherokee Nation by the US government, but to read about it in Moons was excruciatingly revealing. Broke my heart.

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      • Sounds very good (though in a heartbreaking way). I’ve always enjoyed fiction about Native American culture. In fact, the protag of my second book is part Native American. Though I don’t go into the culture so much as I do him having a fascination with it since the father he never knew was Native American. I’ll have to look into Thirteen Moons.

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      • Hope you like the book should you read it. It’s unusual, but I’ll leave you to discover it on your own.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Doing that sort of research is almost as fun as writing the story itself and so often changes the direction you thought you were going in–which is so exciting! I miss the hours spent in libraries!!

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    • You’re right about the change in direction that can happen, especially if you’re trying to be true to the history of a place. But you may get to a point that telling the story outweighs staying within historical accuracy. One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus is based on an historical event that didn’t come to pass, and that happened twenty years earlier. Writers cultivate fertile imaginations. I see strong evidence of imagination on your blog, Adrienne.
      I still love to wander the aisles of libraries but so many have given over a huge amount of book space to computers. One of my favorite stores, a used book store, just went out of business. It had been a dirty, disorganized mess, but I always found a half dozen volumes to take home. I don’t have an e-reader but I may have to acquire one soon.

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      • A story can too bogged down by research it is true :). I was thinking of that the other day whengoing over the distance it would take a character on horseback to get from and army post to the nearest town. I finally allowed for an imagined shorter distance .

        We’re losing a used bookstore too. sad.

        I doubt I’ll ever be an e-reader since I prefer to stumble upon books in the real world, but then who knows. I used to imagine I’d never use a computer.

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      • I’ll never forget the very first day I used a computer. Many years ago I began teaching at a private school where every teacher was given their own computer and expected to use it to communicate with the admin and take care of a hundred tasks a day. I started writing something while my freshman art class was engaged in an assignment – keep in mind I’ve never been the world’s best typist. After I’d been working for ten minutes or so on something brilliant, the entire screen suddenly went white. Everything was lost. I must have screeched and started pulling out my hair, my usual distress reaction. One of my fourteen-year-old students came up to my desk, took a look at what had upset me, and pushed a little button. Everything I’d written slid right back up onto the screen. Apparently I’d leaned too long on the “enter” bar, and the screen had scrolled down to the far depths of emptiness, doing exactly what I’d inadvertently told it to do. My student, of the generation born with a computer on his tongue, understood the problem and fixed it in no time. I still work best when a fourteen-year-old is nearby to help me out of my dilemma.
        Can you imagine me with an e-reader? I’ll need two fourteen-year-olds at least. 😀

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      • LOL–so funny!

        I was a computer instructor for one year (substitute teacher). Every night I’d go home and pull my hair out as my techie husband taught me some new little thing to teach the kids–like making a pie graph. I wrote out the instructions and prayed nothing would go wrong. Luckily the previous teacher just let the kids surf the internet so I looked like the star–but always knew the truth!

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      • That’s a great story – I love it. Sometimes we just have to be two steps ahead of the kids. The funniest thing is to come upon them talking about how you don’t know anything – but they love you anyway! I didn’t know a thing about tech stuff (still don’t) but I did know about art and how to teach it. Forgiveness covers a lot of bases.

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      • Very true. I found when I was a real teacher (not just a sub lol) that if you were honest about your weaknesses and strengths kids would follow you to the moon.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Well, smack my hand against my head and say “Because of your extremely well written post (not to mention the incredibly illustrative photo that accompanies it . . .) I feel like I’m right in the middle of YOUR brain.”
    Love how you illustrate the post with your personal experience (AND the picture)!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • And I do love the very kind and patient person who came to my house and patiently walked me through the picture posting strategy over and over until this very slow learner finally got it. Especially considering how stubbornly difficult my computer system was. Anything mechanical, technical, digital, or computeral confounds me until I’m catatonic. (I’m an artist – the other part of my brain doesn’t work.) Judy, thank you again and again.
      Now, please don’t smack that pretty head any more – the brain inside is starting to yell so loudly, I can hear it on my side of the freeway.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. You need to add ‘likes’ to comments. There were about five I wanted to give a huzzah to.

    I love the idea of digging into journals and diaries, to get a real flavor for the times. You make me want to start another novel.

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  5. Loved readin this. In one of my novels a diary takes the reader back to the 1950s Cuba. I had so much fun doing the research and trying to weave flavor into the story. Great post my friend. It inspired me to write.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Andrew, 1950’s Cuba sounds like a great location for a story. I remember when Castro took control of Cuba and how much my parents were glad that Batista had been ousted. They hoped Castro would bring the reforms to Cuba that the country desperately needed. It seems that Cuba remains desperate, just with a different despot. Can’t wait to read about your books’ progress.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I love books that take this historical moments and weave them into the story. Many people were happy Bautista was ousted. Hindsight is 20/20. Enjoyed your post.

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      • I’m hoping a new regime will consider the real needs of the Cuban people and stop fussing over ideology. Hungry children don’t care about theories of government, especially when it fails the needs of their people. Batista was a crook, Castro a dictator, Raul doesn’t seem to be willing to change anything that might detour the revolution. But I thought revolution was about change. What do I know? I’d just like to know the children over there are getting enough food and milk. All over the world, children should be fed. OK, this is not a political blog.
        Thank you, again, Andrew, for reading my blog.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Smiling. That is my parent’s homeland. Agree 100%

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      • I kinda thought that might be true from your comments. Actually, I’d love to visit Cuba now that restrictions are lifted. From what I know, the people are warm and gracious, intelligent and curious, industrious and very artistic in all categories. When did your family come to the US? (No longer political, now we’re just being social. :D)

        Liked by 1 person

      • LOL Months before Castro’s take over.

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      • There’s a story for you to tell.

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  6. I’ve always wanted to write a book that requires researching a place for the setting. Chuck Palahniuk wrote a book detailing some of the research he’d done for his novels, and it was as fascinating a read as the novels themselves.

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    • Chavva, I really hope you do write a book – it will be amazing. Thanks for the info about Chuck Palahniuk. I’ve never read his work though I know it’s very popular. So now I’ll read some of his work (recommendations from you rank high) and will also look up the research book. I’m always fascinated about the back stage elements of all creative works.

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  7. Research is vital–and I love it! I fell into a research hole for months while I was researching my California Trail story. And I definitely agree–the setting and time should be vital, vivid elements of your work.

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    • Do you mean that you became so engaged by the research or that you dreaded doing it? Your statement makes sense both ways but I’ve love to know what you intended, Cathleen.

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      • Sorry–I don’t dread researching at all. I get involved far past what I usually need, and I have to force myself to emerge and actually write. Although part of it is that the story emerges while I research. While doing several months of oral history interviews with my surviving Greatest Generation relatives, I emerged with an idea that turned into a three-book series. (Okay,

        I wish I could say they were all bestsellers, but I’m still editing them. 🙂 Anyway, it was enough to spark an idea that big.

        That time the research came first and the story second, although often the research comes first. But whether it’s interviews, books, the internet, or even visiting a setting because I need to first before I can write–I always find the research phase engaging. 🙂

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      • Thanks for clarifying for me, Cathleen. I also love doing research, part of what I loved doing when I was a teacher in prep for teaching. I discover so much about the world. Coming across some parts of history always makes me wonder what muffler I’ve worn over my brain that I didn’t know about that event before. The background notes I prepare for my books are usually 100 or more pages long, single line spacing. One of my favorite things I did as part of the research for The Inlaid Table was to visit the Getty Museum which has a wonderful, extensive exhibit about the craft of marquetry. I spent about three hours in that room, reading all the captions, taking detailed notes, and watching the video four times. Then I found a book in the library and studied that in order to make my story as authentic as possible. I enjoyed every minute of the research, and like you, got a bit caught up in it so much that I took a short rest from working on the book itself. I suspect that you might feel as I do, that even info gleaned but not used in a book is a wonderful experience, and I don’t resent the time at all.

        Liked by 1 person

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