Whatever Happens, Happens Somewhere

On place in fiction

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In her essay “Place in Fiction,” Eudora Welty wrote that “place is one of the lesser angels.” She said other considerations were more important than place — “character, plot, symbolic meaning … and feeling, who in my eyes carries the crown, soars highest of them all and rightly relegates place into the shade.” She did not mean by this that place is a minor or accidental consideration in fiction. She meant that place is what anchors the fiction, gives it a reality to stand on even when everything standing on it is unreal. If you can make that place palpable to the senses, it doesn’t matter whether it is an imaginary place or a place in outer space or a momentary vision. As long as it can be perceived via our five senses, the reader will accept it as true even knowing it is not true.

Fiction is about people making something happen or responding to what is happening. Whatever happens, happens somewhere. It takes place. Therefore, fiction takes place too.

Many writers place their stories or novels — or poems — in locales with which they are already familiar. They stick close to home. William Faulkner’s “postage stamp” of Yoknapatawpha, Welty and her brilliantly vivid Mississippi Delta, Flannery O’Connor and tough-as-nails Georgia, Mary Ward Brown and Alabama, Fred Chappell and North Carolina. Or if this list of writers seems too Southern, think instead of Saul Bellow and Chicago, Willa Cather and the plains, Wallace Stegner and the West and Midwest. Think of the New Englanders.

Moby-Dick could not take place in Kansas. Huck Finn would not be Huck Finn without the Mississippi River. Faulkner’s Compsons are who they are because of how they respond to the place in which they find themselves — namely, a segregated South. Ellen Gilchrist’s wild and crazy women live in a society that would have them behave like “ladies.” Joyce Carol Oates’ characters contend with a bleakness and a coldness that would make their struggle seem almost futile except for the passion they bring to it.

A lesser angel, maybe, but no less essential.

Authors have set their stories in all sorts of places. Samuel Beckett wrote a play of 35 seconds called Breath. It includes two birth-cries and someone breathing while the lights alternately dim and brighten. There are no people on the stage, but there is a various mess on the floor. I’ve not seen it produced but I imagine that those 35 seconds are morose and chilly as winter rain in Ireland. Dinner table settings are common because the guests are eager to talk with one another. Lakes and rivers are good. A scouting trip. You can set a story in a classroom, but not as much can happen there as it can in the outdoors. You can place your character in a wooden box six feet under the ground, and attention will be heightened, but without room to move around in, the character will die.

I used to receive student papers in which a single character sat in the dark, thinking. Such a situation will work as long as the writer thinks interesting things, but then it peters out. You want characters that are not passive (unless you are writing Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street,” in which Bartleby refuses to do anything, even eat). The man (let’s say he’s a man) thinking in the dark has no one or anything with which to interact.

How can we help him to act? Someone might throw a rock at his window. The rock comes to rest on the pine flooring. He picks it up. A note is attached. Now we have somewhere to go. Or the rock wakes the baby in another room and now he has to carry the baby to the car to lull him back to sleep. Driving in the middle of the night, he notices that he has to fill up the gas. The filling station has the look of being left over from the ‘40s or ‘50s.

Eudora Welty goes on to say that place in fiction is “the named, identified, concrete, exact and exacting, and therefore credible, gathering place of all that has been felt, is about to be experienced, in the novel’s progress.” Her story “A Still Moment” is a case in point. Three men — James Audubon, the Methodist preacher Lorenzo Dow, and the murderer Murrell, each with his own distinct relation to time — are brought to the same temporal point, without her spelling it out. Why does she not spell it out? Because it is the reader who does that. “Human life is fiction’s only theme,” she said. If you write a story about sand dunes talking with each other, you have a story about human life. It is not about sand dunes. If you and your dog take turns howling at the moon, the dog becomes a character in your story. He may behave doggily, but his consciousness is human consciousness, i.e., your consciousness.

Are we duped or imprisoned within our own minds then? Fortunately, we can exercise our imagination. There will be no telling whether what we imagine is actually the case, but perhaps we are not as far from the truth as we might fear. We know a dog’s mouth can carry and hold, that it serves as his hands. We know his nose is far more trustworthy than ours. Somehow we cobble these bits of information together to satisfy our curiosity about him. Similarly, a few details will render the place much more accessible to the reader.

You’ll notice I refer to the dog’s nose. It is his most effective tool for understanding the world around him. As a human being, you will want to make use of all five senses when you describe something. The late great George Garrett said that every one of the senses should appear on every page. This is not as hard to do as it sounds, for sight, touch, smell, hearing, and taste are second nature to us.

So we have a place, wherever it may be, and we can share information through our sensory modalities, and we know that someone is about to do something with or to or for someone else. At this point we can begin to write.

But wait! As seen on TV, there’s more! You’ll have twice as much to write about if you remember to add some props. Props for the play, props for fiction, props for poems. If they seem to be empty words, remember that words are never empty. They have connotations as well as denotations, they feel and sound different in our throats, they take us in many directions.

When we talk about place, we are also talking about props. Props are found in the place you have chosen to set your work. Every place has props that can be called upon to make the place satisfyingly vivid or to develop the story. These props are simply what is there. Some places include dozens of props; others are less bountiful in this respect but no place is without any. In my novel In the Wink of an Eye, two bandits decide to develop the Green Hell of Bolivia; they want to return Bolivia to the Bolivians:

The sleepy rivers of the jungle were being awakened by new travelers upon them, virginal rivers being penetrated by the insolent lanchas bearing equipment … Reedy passageways parted. Trees over a hundred and eighty feet high, some already dead, were felled, an immense task because their apparently endless trunks were trapped in an elaborate network of smaller trees, woody lianas, and creeper vines. Some of the trees had enormous flat plank roots … The tall, falling, defeated trees, bleached by moonlight, were like the carcasses of sharks fouled in safety nets. When they dried out, the men burned or bulldozed them. Drilling equipment, dragged for miles through the jungle and relayed across rivers by pulleys, lay under tarpaulin in the same soft, muted moonlight. In the camp, radios played dance music, as faint as if it were an echo of itself. People played poker. Ping-Pong. Rolled dice. And at the camp’s edge, behind mammoth trees and thick grass, men and women made love.

Whether you know a place or not, detail is what convinces a reader that you do. Fiction, after all, is a lie. It has to be a convincing lie. The dropped bracelet on the floor, the singing teakettle, the three dark moles next to someone’s nose persuade us that the place is real. Think of Desdemona’s lace handkerchief; it convinces Othello that she is guilty of adultery. Even science fiction and fantasy provide details to draw us into the story. Harry Potter comes alive because he grows and changes like boys who are not wizards. Fantastical beings have a way of being very like humans. If they weren’t, we wouldn’t be interested in reading about them. If you write a story about stones, the stones will take on human characteristics, or the reader will stop reading.

Many writers have had the odd experience of finding their work read as if it were autobiographical when it isn’t and as if it were not when it is. What makes the difference is not what did or didn’t happen to the writer but how well — or not — she created it. A well-described place goes a long way toward making the story credible. •

Photo by Antoniya Kuneva via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Kelly Cherry‘s new poetry book is Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer. Her book of flash fiction titled Temporium is forthcoming later this year.
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