When Location Should Matter

I went across the bridge. I could not decide if I should wonder back, or journey toward what is unknown. The unknown is most secretive, and it shares not a single confidence with anyone or anything it knows.

Bridges, rivers, buildings, and towns – with history etched or blasted into them – have always attracted me. As a writer, I wonder what lies over a bridge. Does it lead somewhere, or is it a solitary walk for a person who seeks to escape the world?

Whenever I drove home from almost anywhere, I had to cross a bridge over the Catawba River. An old watchtower was built near the bridge and the river side. I noticed the door had long disappeared. Windows were cracked. A faded, tan rectangle—once a small tower of operation for a nearby dam—was swallowed by weeds, grass, and vines.

Did the controller who once worked in the tower have a story? What did he think when he watched the river at night? Was he a man whose wife made him miserable? Would he bring his girlfriend on the side, or was he a man who kept to himself?

What about the river? Is it the sort where water gushes over rocks after a rain storm? My husband taught me how to read the rise or lowering of the water. I could look at the rocks or even the base of a bridge. The water left a line on the place it had last touched like the sea-shore after a night of high tides.

My book, Sons of the Edisto, takes place near a river in South Carolina called the Edisto. The soil and dirt in the earth are old enough to darken the river. It is flat, moves slow, and at some points, it blends with a shallow swamp.

About two years ago, I created a place near the river for my characters to meet. It needed something to make it stand out. I ran into a problem common with many writers:

Location, location, location. That is: know the location of your story inside and out. For some, this is common sense. For others, it is letting the smallest details slip past your fingers on the keyboard.

I had done a good job traveling three or more hours to Bamberg, South Carolina. I did everything I could think of to know and understand the place with a history and personality different from my region.

I took a lot of pictures of Bamberg, and of the South Fork Edisto, a portion of the river. To recreate a setting in the nineteen twenties, I had to go beyond pictures and do a lot of research and reading. Many of the buildings on Main Street and elsewhere had been demolished.

I created a large rock in the book like the ones with which I was associated in my childhood. I had taken more trips to the Blue Ridge Mountains, played in the rivers and creeks, and at the Catawba. I knew them better than the calm-looking Edisto. My dad looked at me when I read the passage and laughed.

“There are no rocks on the Edisto,” he said. “It’s made of nothing but sand.”

He was right. I took it out. No problem. The detail of the rock appeared small at first, but I made an error on my homework. I had read about the different soils and sands around the Edisto enough to know everything about it was different. I stood nearby and photographed it.

In Books

I finished Pride and Prejudice and Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not after I went on a reading binge of five books at once. All the books I’ve read and those I am reading have a sense of place either from the author’s imagination, or his or her research.

When Jane Austen writes about Pemberley, you know where Elizabeth Bennet is walking. Austen created a character who is not only accustomed to walking, but one who often enjoys it. Each garden or path must separate itself from another place. Pemberley should not show the same garden as that of Elizabeth’s annoying cousin, Mr. Collins.

Hemingway digs darker tunnels in his worlds. In To Have and Have Not, he describes little. As in much of his writing, he is direct and leaves the reader to look in between the lines of what he has written. There are spurts of longer descriptions. He shows the bars, and what surrounds them. Hemingway is the most descriptive with water, boats, and yachts.

Both authors expose character and personality in the locations of their stories. Hemingway spends less time on lighter scenery, such as the kinds of birds flying over the water. Few moments of peace exist because his main character, Harry Morgan, is never at peace.

In what world do you place your characters? Do you have a single favorite setting? What makes it reflect your characters’ personalities? 

What is your favorite location from any book you’ve read?

Please share your own stories of how you research or create your location.


6 thoughts on “When Location Should Matter

  1. This is a very well written and thought out post. I loved reading it! I like that, in writing about a place that you aren’t native to, you still took the time to try to really understand it. It’s very difficult to not only actively describe a place, but also to use language to create the whole mood, or feel of the setting. I think people who don’t write just cannot understand how hard it is to capture that moment. Even a detail seemingly as small as rocks instead of sand, can make or break a passage. Kudos to you for putting so much effort into it! 🙂

    For me, I like writing about settings I know. I’m from the West Coast, I was born in the middle California Wine Country. I love the atmosphere there. The sun shining brightly over the vineyards, where it always feels like summer. Yet, I grew up in Washington State, living only one mile from the most beautiful temperate rainforest park, which to this day is my favorite place I have ever been. The evergreen trees are aptly named, whether the sun shines or the rain falls on them. The trees are always covered in moss, and the forest floor is overrun by ferns. And yet, now I live in Eastern Washington, in a small town nestled in the rolling wheat covered hills of an area called the Palouse. I attempt to write short stories just to capture the feeling of the area, which proves quite difficult since I’ve never lived in a setting like this before. I’ve yet to master describing this area, but here’s a link to one of my favorite pictures of the Palouse area. http://www.chipphillipsphotography.com/Landscapes/Inland/3813178_vN5LbT/543975448_42Csv#!i=543975448&k=42Csv

    I remember in one of my favorite literature courses, actually we were reading Hemingway at the time, my professor said that when well written a setting actually becomes a character itself in the novel. I really liked that because I think it’s true. Hemingway is a great example for it. Probably my favorite example though, would be Annie Proulx’s short story Brokeback Mountain. She did such a breathtaking job at writing the scenery of Wyoming and really using it in the story for much more than just a place. Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson is another great example, even though I actually hated the book, haha! But, despite disliking it and not being able to understand it, I can respect when something is at least written well. 🙂

    Also, sorry for the long reply, but it was such a wonderful, thought provoking post!

    1. Aly, thank you so much for your thought out comment! I appreciate it! The way you describe California and Eastern Washington makes me want to pack my bags and leave now. One of my greatest enjoyments in life is looking, reading, and traveling to other places. The pictures of the Palouse are gorgeous. I especially like the autumn shot with the road and the trees. Fall pictures from any place are some of my favorites because of the definition in color.

      South Carolina is such a small state, but there is a big difference in the landscape. The upper portion in which I grew up, close to the North Carolina line, has hills for miles. When you move to the upper corner of the state, there are more mountains. The lower part of the state, as boring as some of my detailed descriptions might seem, is flat and full of pine trees. At first, I wondered how am I going to make this place seem beautiful if I do not think it is, but over the five-and-a-half year period of writing and now editing, I’ve found it.

      That is wonderful you’ve found two different geographic places, especially when both are so beautiful.

      Your professor is right. Every setting has a character.

      Thank you again! I always enjoy your posts as well!

  2. I have “created” small towns in which multiple stories have been set. One fictional town in particular was based on a real place that I love, love, love. My imaginary town now seems more real to me that the “real” place, which I visit every now and then. In other stories (for selling to a certain market) place doesn’t figure as strongly, and the setting is a generic city or town with few distinguishing landmarks. I love reading stories with strong settings, though. It allows me to travel without going anywhere.

    Good post!

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