To paraphrase Gertrude Stein—where has a there. And that there tends to be vital to work that endures.
Readers, for the most part, need location. It’s an old saw about place functioning as character. I’d argue additionally that place attaches to body. The body needs a backdrop to remember that it’s a body: needs ground and sky; needs topography; needs buildings or their ruins, landscape or city, cave or room, street or lake—not to mention other bodies.
No doubt plenty of experimental work offers itself in which disembodied sensibilities drift in a vacuum—Beckett comes to mind—but the writing I like best offers a field against which, however infinitesimally, movement by a set of principals can occur. Not only does place subtly allow movement’s measure—here, and then there—it interacts with readers and characters, imbuing brain and body (readers’, characters’, story’s) with tone.
It seems almost a law of writing that to enrich and impel story, place must be itself infused with five-sense particulars. Color, texture, temperature, noise—the range and gradations of emotions associated with these; with familiarity or comfort (or their lacks): all these push and fortify stories, giving them (like weather) their authority.
One of the first things (among the myriad) that assault writers’ eyes, ears, skin and hearts when they begin to make a story, is the look and feel of a setting. It may or may not help to travel, but no skilled writer ignores those details. What falls to us—where the art is, certainly—is which to select, and when and how to use them.
It’s warming to think about the earliest works that delivered place to us so acutely we can never forget them: the Arable farm in Charlotte’s Web, Brontë’s moors (and Conan Doyles’), Dickens’ London, Hugo’s Paris, Anderson’s Winesburg, Cather’s Nebraska, Eloise’s Manhattan, Kipling’s jungle, a million more. To these and all those like them, in great part because of the power and exoticism (even homespun) of place, we owe our writing lives. Each of them took us away, and in some marvelous way, we never came back.
Joan Frank is the author of five books of fiction, and a recent essay collection called Because You Have To: A Writing Life, just nominated for the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Nonfiction. Joan holds an MFA in creative fiction from Warren Wilson College, is a MacDowell Colony Fellow, Pushcart Prize nominee, winner of the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction, Richard Sullivan Prize, Dana Award, and is the recipient of grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, and Sonoma Arts Council. A two-time nominee for the Northern California Book Award in Fiction and San Francisco Library Literary Laureate, Joan has taught creative writing at San Francisco State University, and continues to teach and edit in private consultation. Joan also regularly reviews literary fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review. She lives in Northern California.