Writing about Place is one of the things we discuss in The Narrative Project. Place can be described as the story’s setting, the location in your story where your characters live. With details of place, time, and weather, the reader imagines the character’s daily routine within the landscape. Like most readers, I visualize the character’s surroundings when I read a book. The better the author describes the environment, the more vivid the story becomes in my mind. In my novel, Celia’s Heaven, Lake Monroe is a consistent detail that repeats throughout the story. We see Celia walking beside the lake, waiting at the lake’s edge on the anniversary of her sister’s death, and in a rowboat on the lake during a snowstorm. These details create mood, develop character, and move the story forward.
Place is essential to any story. When woven in and referenced often, details reflect season, culture, timeframe, mood, and the senses. In a way, place is almost like a character in your story. When I was learning to write setting, I used the “Here & Now” exercise to gather information about the landscape I was describing. In the “Here & Now” exercise, the writer goes to the actual place where the story unfolds. Then the writer jots down copious details, observing what is physically present at that moment.
In my first novel, Whispering, Idaho, the main landscape element was the river. I thought I had the details of the river down from memory, as I’d grown up near a river. But when I vacationed on the Spokane River one summer, I discovered what I had missed. There were ospreys diving for fish from a nest across the river, hooded mergansers swimming upriver, thunderstorms building over the water, and swallows feeding on a mayfly hatch. There were water sounds: burbling, swishing, sucking, and splashing. The weight of the water—near flood stage it moved heavily with a surging tactile weight, as the water level lowered, willows bobbed up from beneath the surface, swaying with the flow. There were yellow jackets, the smell of fish and mud, and a breeze following the river’s current. Pines dotted the grassy hillsides to the north with black-eyed Susan’s and Sad Lupine blooming at their feet. I didn’t recall all these elements from memory, but when I observed them in the moment and noted what I saw, my story came alive.
If you can’t get to the place you are writing about, visit a place similar. Name the details you observe in a list—I like writing out 100-word lists for my stories. While on my daily walks, I observe details of the pond I pass: withered lily pads, velvety cattails, sunning turtles, murky water, the fernlike plant covering one open surface, oily scum in another stagnant area, a Great Blue Heron fishing, the call of a Virginia Rail, etc.. Taking detailed inventory helps me later when I sit down to write scenes for my memoir or novel.
Maybe returning to a favored place—perhaps a hometown—is familiar and reassuring because we know it so well. Place is vitally important for tying together disparate parts. In story, as well as in life, come back to place often, grounding the reader in the landscape where your characters live.
Nancy Canyon, MFA, is a writing coach for The Narrative Project and teaches Wild Mind Writing for Chuckanut Writers in Bellingham, WA. She is also a painter, detailing water lilies and flowers in acrylic paint on canvas. To order her recently released novel published by Penchant Press International, Celia’s Heaven, go to villagebooks.com. For more about Nancy, see www.nancycanyon.com