Write in place

White Lightning Highway 1

White Lightning's Cali escape part 1 & 2

California dreamin’

I have the good fortune to be planning my first-ever trip to California, and the misfortune to wait till spring shades into summer to go. It was a tough winter.

From the unsheltered aerie of Queensboro Plaza, P and I retreat down the stairwell to wait for the train, huddling with the other old hands who use it as a windbreak. Someone always wonders why they didn’t just take a cab instead. I know why we don’t. We are stingy and perverse. I regretted it then, hopping and hugging myself and chanting pathetically:

I wished I were here. But I will be.

Mapping as a creative tool

1f. Ocean Beach in fog with Holga Camera

robertr2006's Year of Fog flickr set

And so, my escapist fantasies transformed into a Google map. While adding San Francisco must-sees, I discovered author Michelle Richmond’s Google map detailing the locations in her novel The Year of Fog. I find it an exciting tool in the writer’s arsenal. Building a novel’s world can be as simple as planning a vacation. Developing a setting isn’t mysterious—it’s location scouting.

(Novelist Jonathan Ames nails NYC by highlighting unique locations in TV series Bored to Death: an act of vandalism at a Williamsburg restaurant spoils a precious farm-to-table pig roast; a chase scene violates the gendered spaces of a surreal Korean spa palace in Queens.)

How could I forget? Worldbuilding, a kind of fictive anthropology, is foundational to fantasy and science fiction writing. From Tolkien’s The Hobbit to Josh Lanyon’s Strange Fortune, it begins with a map. Terrain dictates culture. As part of her writing process, writer Karen Lisle generates ideas by drawing maps, exploiting her drafting mistakes as plot points. She might adapt an unnaturally precise river into a piece of civil engineering (who made it? for what purpose?); a road to nowhere could serve as an eerie memorial to a past disaster.

Sixth & Elm's woodburned map of Tolkien's Middle Earth

Sixth & Elm's woodburned map of Tolkien's Middle Earth

The first chapter of E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India is my favorite invocation of place, where the setting dictates the themes to be explored in the novel. A social order is married to the natural one: the native city hugs the muddied, rotten shore of the Ganges, but the colonial British “inhabit the rise,” from which the view is totally different, a beautiful city of gardens. Meanwhile, the “fists and fingers” of the Marabar Caves, anarchic and convoluted, thrust up through this fragile harmony—the novel’s tragic, climactic misunderstanding will occur there. In Forster’s construction, worldbuilding reveals worldview.

Novels rooted in place

James and the Giant Peach

Not far away, in the middle of the garden, he could see the giant peach towering over everything else. Surely it was even bigger tonight than ever before? And what a dazzling sight it was! The moonlight was shining and glinting on its great curving sides, turning them to crystal and silver. It looked like a tremendous silver ball lying there in the grass, silent, mysterious, and wonderful.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

After some minutes, a loud hissing was heard. I felt the cold mount from my feet to my chest. Evidently from some part of the vessel they had, by means of a tap, given entrance to the water, which was invading us, and with which the room was soon filled. A second door cut in the side of the Nautilus then opened. We saw a faint light. In another instant our feet trod the bottom of the sea.

Wuthering Heights

Wuthering Heights is the name of Mr Heathcliff’s dwelling … descriptive of the atmospheric tumult to which its station is exposed in stormy weather. Pure, bracing ventilation they must have up there, at all times, indeed: one may guess the power of the north wind, blowing over the edge, by the excessive slant of a few, stunted firs at the end of the house; and by a range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving alms of the sun.

My Brother Michael

No one was about. I crossed the temple floor and sat down at the edge with my back to one of the columns. The stone was hot. Above my head the crumbling capitals were alive with the wings of martins. Far below the olives shimmered along the valley. In the distance Helicon was blue, was silver, was grey as Aphrodite’s doves. Everywhere were the voices of songbirds, because Delphi is sanctuary. Somewhere in the morning distance sheep bells were ringing….

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

For me, Savannah’s resistance to change was its saving grace. The city looked inward, sealed off from the noises and distractions of the world at large. It grew inward, too, and in such a way that its people flourished like hothouse plants tended by an indulgent gardener. Eccentrics thrived. Every nuance and quirk of personality achieved greater brilliance in that lush enclosure than would have been possible anywhere else in the world.

2 Responses to “Write in place”
  1. michelle says:

    What a beautiful, inspiring post! “Fictive anthropology”– I love the term. And thank you very much for linking to my Year of Fog map.

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