Place as a Character Builder, Tool, and Embellishment

Another San Francisco Writers Conference has come to an end, and just as with the other SFWC I’ve attended, I’ve learned so much. Honestly, they could hold a month-long conference and there would still be things to learn.

One of the workshops I attended was on place being an intrinsic part of the novel. It makes so much sense, you’d think it was a no-brainer. Location description is one tool the novelist can use to transport the reader into the characters’ world.

This is preaching to the choir. I enjoy writing about different places, just as I enjoy reading about different (or familiar) places. As a reader, I want to be able to feel, touch, and smell where the action is. One book that does this seamlessly is the Hunger Games series. I’m a reader not “into” dystopian, teen fantasy, but the author does such a great job of place description (an imagined place), and along with the compelling story, I couldn’t put the book down. In fact, I think about that world even today, months after I finished the series, and compare and contrast the author’s world with the present day one.

I’ve said elsewhere that I enjoy reading stories about places I’ve been. San Francisco comes to mind immediately. I’ll pick up and read any novel with a photo of the Golden Gate on it. San Francisco is a city rich with history, culture, and diversity. The architecture is stunning, the nature of the ocean here is so unlike any seaside I’ve ever been to, and the native plants are intriguing in look and feel. No where else could you find squat trees with gnarled bark, calla lilies growing out of postage stamp sized yards, or trees precariously angled toward the east, their stance shaped by relentless ocean winds. I love the smell of the neighborhoods, the scent of eucalyptus. The people are different, too, a contrast from those in the Midwest, the West, and even from Southern California. Being in the City is an all-out assault on the senses.

Is it any wonder that I love to use San Francisco as a setting? 🙂 It’s why I return: to get an accurate feel of a driving wind on Ocean Beach, the bustle of Union Square, the squeak of MUNI brakes. Because even though I’ve experienced those things in the past, I can lose the memory of such things.

Because a character is in a certain place obviously shapes the way they behave. In the book I’m working on now, Finding Cadence, Cadie begins life in Colorado in the late 1960s, when the high plains were wide open and wild. Then she moves to Michigan and marries into a rich family and assumes the role of socialite, even though deep down she’s far from it. By the time she ‘finds’ herself, in San Francisco, she is a different person altogether, but probably the truest she’ll ever be.

One of the presenters stated you can use the Internet to help with research on your place. I agree, but only to a point. Some places have to experienced in order to get the correct pulse of place. I grew up in Colorado, and every time I return, some sensation comes to mind that I had forgotten; the subtle shading of the mountains, the way storms roll in, the arid landscape. (That’s why it’s handy to keep a notebook on you at all times!) Also, you as the writer will have a different view of a place than another might. You can only trust the Internet so far.

In using place, be careful; I sometimes concentrate so much on place description, it detracts from the story. It’s because I’m so excited about the place, I want to take you there. As a writer, you don’t want to overload your work with too much description (unless you’re writing a travel book). As with all parts of the novel, the descriptions should be succinct, and your use of words should be judicious. Take your readers there with vivid and realistic portrayals, and let the story begin.


4 Responses

  1. I hope you had room for a little Haight-Ashbury in there too! 😉

  2. Not yet. Maybe tomorrow! 🙂

  3. I’d actually assumed you were from SF at one point. You just seem so familiar with it, and your writing about it feels so rich and instinctive.

  4. That’s funny. Except for passing through when I first got to this country (at two and a half), the first time I’d visited was in 2005 when my son came to college here. So my love affair is a brief one at best.

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