Writing Academy, Memoirs, Novels, Short Stories, Book Proposals

New York City Writing Coach

Gay Walley

Location, location, location

One of the main characters in your book is location. Yes there are post modern books where no one knows where the scenes are located but then the location-lessness is part of the story, a character itself in the book.
So “place,” however one defines it, is entirely important. I remember one time I was blocked about what to write next and a writer friend said to me,”Think of a place for the story,” and out of that was born the novel LOST IN MONTREAL. I thought of my time walking the streets avidly as a young girl and what I saw and what led me to walking the streets and all of that became the ore for a story.
Raymond Chandler uses Los Angeles as a character. Conrad uses the sea. Dickens of course, we know where he uses. And on it goes. Place will ground you so to speak. Hemingway always said mention the weather in your scenes which is another way of talking about place. What he really means is that the reader likes to know where they are and see and feel the scene. So, if your book has many beach scenes, give us the sounds, the light, the heat, as well as where that beach is. An English beach is different than one on Cape Cod, the reader should always know where they are.
To return to place, you probably have also noticed that readers love seeing a city, complete with street names. Street names can have a kind of poetry to them. Writers use Seville, Barcelona, Lisbon, Paris – all as characters. The traffic the characters have to deal with, the particularities of the city become part of the story. Readers like the “feel” of a place. The people walking, the clothes they are wearing.
Of course Hardy’s Tess of the D’ubervilles also shows the countryside to romantic affect, as do many novels, so I suppose the message is mostly to remember that the setting of your novel is a deep part of the story. The location is part of the characters’ personalities.
Another important point is that the “place” details you make a point of illustrating in a novel should be specifically selected not only to let the reader settle into the scene, but also to dramatize the emotions in the story. If you are writing a passionate love story, the disarray of clothes on the bed will evoke that. If you are writing about a stiff family, the way the table is laid out will evoke that. Details are emotional and chosen selectively to further your characters’ lives. What you select to show us is part of your talent. “We are as much informed of a writer’s genius by what he selects as by what he originates,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson.
You don’t have to give every detail of the location of the scene, but you do have to select those that enlighten us to the character, and stay in the emotions of the story.
Let me try another way of saying this. If I am describing a writer’s living room, I do not need to mention every item on her coffee table but I will mention what betrays her particular character – stacks of pages of someone else’s work, a picture of Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin and Anthony Powell, for example, a pencil sharpener, a lipstick … I don’t need to itemize but just list the details that give away that writer’s particular mind set that is relevant to the scene that you will be depicting.
But always keep in mind you have to never leave the dramatic tension of your story. No one wants to take a break from a heartfelt scene to describe the clouds in the sky that day. So know that the setting of your novel, like a set in a play, is one that communicates and enhances the story but is not the story itself.
So as with all novels, this is a tricky business. It’s selectivity. Not too much detail so we think we are reading a subway map, but not too little detail so we lose some of the world your characters are living in and interacting in and with.
The best guide for when is enough detail is to watch carefully that you do not break the action of a scene… that you make sure the story is always moving and that the location in the background simply adds to it. Do not interrupt the emotion of the scene for a coffee break about the history of the city fifty years ago or the environmental changes in the terrain unless it has something to do with the plot.

More on characters next time!!!