Sparked by Words

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The first words, the first sentence – we writers must get them perfect. It’s the only chance we have with most readers – irritate or confuse them and our story becomes trash. Films have it much easier. An audience held captive, engaged by so many sensory activities at once – compelling music, clever camera angles, images of all kinds, words and names, snappy or threatening dialogue, and all of that in only a few seconds. In the first minute folks know whether or not they’ll stick around for the next two hours, and it’s likely most do. A creation of the labor of hundreds, even thousands of people, films also have the advantage of social interaction. People go to the movies or sit in their homes with their best friends and eager strangers to experience a film as a group, sharing the wit, mystery, danger, silliness, fear, humor, and delight on the screen.

Writers cannot be filmmakers. We don’t make movies with all the multi-dimensional aspects of film. A book must contain every aspect of action, character development, dialogue, and setting with none of the multi-dimensional layering of film. But there’s the problem – if we write too much, we risk boring our readers. The more words and descriptions we put in, filling pages with every possible angle, response, and internal thought of our characters, the more we detract from the action and deflate the power of the story.

Enter one of the most persuasive characters of a story: location. It’s the prime real estate of a book, literally the waterfront property, mountain cabin, or desert hideaway. Lock step with time frame, location confirms the action of a story.

Consider the hidden encampment of Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain of North Carolina where Confederate deserter Inman heads home to meet his sweetheart, Ada. The primitive, rugged terrain of Cold Mountain echoes the crude circumstances that Ada and Inman are reduced to living over the course of the book. The more they retreat from civilization, the closer they move toward each other, the more the foreboding character of the mountain informs the plot. Based on the life of Frazier’s uncle, the story could not take place anywhere but Cold Mountain – ominous, dreary, and promising all at once.

Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone follows the birth, childhood, and eventual medical practice of one brother of a set of twins born in Ethiopia. The country’s twentieth century history of rule by Haile Selassi and the rebellions that attempted to depose him are intertwined with the complex story of the brothers and their divergent life paths. Verghese presents the conflicting world of Ethiopia, a country with a huge Indian population that often supplants the needs and rights of the indigenous people. The despair of Ethiopia provides an echoing backdrop for the conflict between the brothers whose contentious relationship is clinched by their mutual attraction to a young woman.

Frazier and Verghese know their territories well, each having lived and explored where their stories take place. The descriptions of Cold Mountain and Ethiopia are authentic, established with both epic sweep and details that invoke intimacy. Inman sees Cold Mountain as the place that will heal and save him, give his soul respite from the savagery of the war, and grant a future with Ada. Every American kid learns about the Civil War, but Frazier’s retelling turns dry facts into anguish. In Ethiopia, where access to medical help is determined by one’s wealth or constrained by tribal superstitions, a patient assumes he will die of his illness. It’s an idea that is anathema to us in the United States where we expect advanced medical skills to save us from everything. These two stories could only happen on these particular soils.

Creating an authentic sense of place draws from memory and utilizes research. For my own books I’ve been fortunate to be able to recall numerous details of places I’ve visited or lived. I’ve also had the serendipitous experience of meeting people who have personal knowledge of the locations that are crucial to my story, and often know firsthand about some of the events that I write about. Interviews with them as well as photographs, maps, and newspaper articles broaden my grasp of these places. Google Earth even verified for me that an existing hill in Orange County could indeed provide the empty plot for a home to exist in The Tree House Mother. All the streets named in the book can be found on maps except for the tiny street where the tree house was propped in a pepper tree. That one street is a fabrication, a fiction of my imagination. You can drive up to the top of Skyline Drive to find the overgrown lot where the Youngs’ family home once stood. You can tramp the wild chaparral where Andie sat on the side of the access road and watched a parade of cars. The location contributes as much excitement as the plot.

Perhaps the most important part of writing about a particular place is to be enchanted with its terrain and smells, intrigued with its streaming water or exotic flora, curious about its hidden paths. If “X” marks the exact spot on a map, if the GPS can find it, if readers can imagine standing on our plots of virtual real estate, that’s just one more compelling reason to read our stories.

 

Public domain image courtesy Library of Congress

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Comments on: "What a Great Place This Is!" (33)

  1. I so agree with you, Shari. Setting shared with all the senses makes it as important as plot points. And conversely, when it becomes a narrative travelogue, it drives readers away. Excellent post.

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    • Beware the narrative travelogue – I love this. And yes, we should all be wary. If we want to be bored, we can open our old college textbooks – plenty of mine were just plain awful.
      Thank you for the compliment, Jacqui.

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  2. Being able to capture the setting with intrigue and clarity is, in my opinion, a great way to start a story. Yet, from what I’ve been reading lately, supposedly action should be first. I don’t agree with this, mind you. When I first open a book to the first chapter, I want to know WHERE I am with as many details as necessary to get me to the next clump of narrative.

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    • There is so much conflicting advice about how to begin a story, it gets pretty nerve wracking to determine which way to go. Though genre directs some beginnings, I agree with you, Glynis, and think you should favor your intuition. Strong writing always wins my heart. The problem with beginning a story in an explosion of action is that we readers can’t identify with any of the characters, because we don’t know anything about them.

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  3. You nailed it with your opening. More and more today’s writer has to snare the reader with his opening words. There are too many options of books to be read and things to do. And I was fascinated by your comparison to movies. It used to be a screenplay could use its first ten pages to set the movie and snare the viewer. Now, screenplays are held to the same high standards as novels.

    Regarding the places. The location of our novels can place such a vital role to our stories. Some stories are so reliant on the place to help set the mood or obstacles the main characters face.

    I imagine your locations in writing are more exotic then mine. Both start here in NYC (but one does end in an alien world).

    Have a wonderful weekend.

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    • Today’s readers are an impatient bunch, aren’t they? You know much more about screen plays than I do, Andrew. I’ve never even attempted one, though I’ve written dozens of skits (no intention of ever publishing) for teaching religious history to children.

      I’m not so sure any of my story locations are any more exotic than yours, as nearly all, with one huge exception, are places I’ve lived. I find NYC fascinating and have long wanted to live there for one year, to see every theater and concert production, wander around all the museums and monuments, trek about Central Park, catch the feel of every borough, and eat at every deli and restaurant in the city. When we lived in New Jersey, we’d visit about once a year, usually to see whatever movie was playing at the cinerama theater (my dad loved the films) but we never even went to see the Statue of Liberty or Ellis Island!

      I did in fact have an absolutely wonderful weekend and hope you and Allie did as well.

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  4. You are a writer who uses GPS – Global Prose Scenes

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  5. As someone who yearns for happy endings Cold Mountain was a huge disappointment. 🙂 I greatly enjoyed the sense of place in his story but something in his characters kept me at a distance.

    An old house in Englewood, NJ inspired my first novel and the series that followed and if I have time my next set of novels will be based on a collapsed house I visited in Upstate NY that was my great-great-great-grandfather’s home. The desolation of the place brought a whole world to life in my head!

    Whenever I get stuck in writing I visit an old house or cemetery!

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    • I think Charles Frazier intended Cold Mountain to be ominous, as an exploration of the human condition that’s often barbarous and cruel, indifferent and fickle, as well as compassionate, courageous, loyal, and loving. I did enjoy the story enough to read it twice, and then read Thirteen Moons. It’s based on the Federal government’s failure to uphold treaties made with the Cherokee nation, a famous if shameful part of American history. I found it a very difficult book to read as the overall sense of failure and despair runs through the entire story with little respite and no respect for any of the characters.

      Would you consider writing a post on your blog about how you solve any writing lapses by visiting an old house or cemetery? I’d love to read about your process, Adrienne.

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      • I remember listening to Frazier being interviewed about the book. I’m just such a sucker for happy endings.

        The history of Native Americans is so much more complex than I knew–at once victims and oppressors, naive and back stabbing–like the rest of us. Sadly they just didn’t invent guns first. 🙂 What interests me is that the white American gene pool is very heavy on Indian genes which suggests more assimilation than actual genocide. Some of the Cherokee leaders were betrayers to their people as well. Humanity is messy business.

        BTW, just published your suggestion for a post. 🙂 Thanks, Sharon!

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      • I loved your article, Adrienne. You really brought that elegant old house to life.
        Any ancient culture is likely to be much more complex and dark than what we might have romanticized before we find out the historical truth. Jim Fergus revealed similar disturbing views of the Cheyenne in One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd. And of course, terrible views of the white military troops that controlled the area where the Cheyenne lived. No one comes out looking too pretty in either of these books, and I found myself wondering how little we know and understand about other cultures. I can certainly comprehend the resentment of Native Americans.

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      • There were a lot of soldiers and citizens who stood up for the Indians but so often corruption ruled the day–not much has changed.

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      • Yes, of course, there are always people of good conscience, but so often those without moral substance wreak much damage.

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  6. It’s a big plus to be able to talk to people with firsthand experience of the place you are writing about. It seems likely to give your work a whole new level of authentic detail.

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    • You’re right, there’s nothing like drawing on personal experience of a place or historical moment. and if that’s not possible, then an interview with someone who has a genuine presence is essential. As fiction writers, we make up our worlds, but authenticity convinces readers they’re also present at the inception.
      Thanks for your comment, Bun, always appreciated.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. The setting is definitely an important character and vital to the story.

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  8. The setting and opening lines are vital in a novel. Thanks for inspiring me to make an editing pass on my Civil War novels and make them more intense. 🙂

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  9. I love your process and use of the GPS to come up with a setting that is real for your novels. I don’t have that problem writing memoir as my setting is given although I still have to invite the reader into the location and make them feel part of it. The opening sentence and paragraphs are so important. Their importance made all the more apparent when publishers take the first three chapters and make a decision based on that. Many I believe would not read past one page unless it really grabbed them. I loved Verghese’s Cutting for Stone and you are right – it couldn’t have been set in another location. Above all, as you say, it has to ring true to the reader and if you can make them believe they will invest not only their time but themselves in the work.

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  10. Sharon, You and I are inspired by settings. They surround us and we become part of them and they are the main character of our stories in the end. I think that’s why I take so many pictures of places. Although they change through the seasons and the years, they are always there to come back to and to remember. I sent my annual Christmas card to a childhood friend. His sister sent me a card today saying that she was sorry to have to tell me he had died last January. I’d sent him a photo in his Christmas card last year. It was of some of us in the neighborhood dressed up for Easter Sunday. When I received the news of his death, I thought of the old neighborhood and our childhood there and the memories of place comforted me. Settings are important in our lives.

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    • Oh my gosh, Clare, my heart just dropped when I read your story. How sad that your dear friend died earlier this year, and that you only found out because of the Christmas card. It must be bittersweet to look at that photo now, but I bet you’re glad to have it.

      I agree that setting can be a vital part of a story, literally another character. I think Pat Conroy is a master of setting as character. I find myself speaking with a Southern drawl when reading his books, and wanting to go out in a small boat on the ocean.

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      • Hello, Sharon. It’s Christmas Eve Day and I just picked up my computer for the first time in a few days. I hope to have lots of time after the holiday to visit blogs and read all about the latest news. Have a peaceful Christmas and I’ll share my new Christmas books and their settings with you in January. 🎄

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      • That sounds like lots of fun – I’m looking forward to it!

        I’m grinning, however, about having lots of time after the holidays – I hope that comes true for you. When I say that for myself, I always find a million other obligations demanding time and attention.

        Have a wonderful and healthy New Year, Clare.

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