Getting Back to the Business of Writing: Day 2: Discovering Place

Greetings fellow readers and writers a bit after the Labor Day holiday (and I hope that those of you who celebrated it had a restful one.)  For my experiences in the day – it took a bit for me to settle down from events – my day began mid-morning, and I cooked for the holiday for a good while.  I spent some time with family, caught up with a few personal projects,  and following the holiday, I’m going back to the full swing of my workday.  I’ve had a restful holiday weekend collectively, and I’m ready to meet the challenges of this particular week.  I have quite a bit going on, so my posts might be centered more toward the latter evening each day, but I’m still keeping to the post-a-day format for this particular series (in addition to any reviews on books that I’m reading).  I’ve been focusing more on my writing the past few days, but I should be back to posting reviews of books as I can do so.

Yesterday, I talked a little about my progress on my WIP and the importance of establishing setting/place within a work.  Today, I’m doing a continuation of that post by building upon specific questions in relation to that same theme.  My particular WIP is tricky because it’s a combination of real and fantastical elements, and I’m having to find a fair balance between them.  Yet, I think in some of the questions that I ask myself while building setting/place in my stories could be used by anyone who wants to think about that particular dimension and use it to their advantage in a work.   Setting/Place is a very important part of worldbuilding a story – you don’t want to make it too detailed to the point where it may bog down or overshoot the events or character interactions in your work, but you don’t want elements of it to be contradicting or confusing to the point where it detracts from the tale and renders it untrue (especially if you’re working with already established places).  You also want to give enough of it to where the reader can immerse themselves.  It’s a balancing act, to be sure – people have various ways of showing it.

Discovering the place of a story, for me,  starts with examining the different dimensions of “where” it’s going to take place.   It can be as microscopic as a room in a house, a business, or a given neighborhood in a much larger city.  On a macroscopic level, it may be the city (real or imagined), state, country – heck even planet – in which it’s taking place.  You don’t have to put all your eggs in one basket and try to tackle all these senses of place from the get go, but rather, it’s an element you can build along as your story becomes more complex, as your character moves from the smaller dimension into the bigger realm, or bigger into smaller depending on what’s more comfortable for you (building up or down).

Starting local is probably the easiest dimension of where a story can take place. When I say “local” – I’m meaning in a particular scene where the character is interacting in an immediate environment – the smallest sense of place that one can establish.  It’s probably what I would term as your “primary” place.  If you have a character  who walks into a convenience store in the middle of the night after travelling on the road, that convenience store is your “primary”.  He or she’s going to perceive things immediate to that environment.  When you’re crafting things scene by scene, establishing the primary is very important to establishing the senses and interactions of that particular character.

Some things you might ask in the immediacy of the example I gave:  Where’s the character located and what are they seeing inside this convenience store? Are they at the counter with the cashier?  Perusing the aisles looking for a pack of gum?  Seeking the restroom?  Establishing the primary place can build not only the character’s immediate perceptions in the eyes of the reader, but also allow for the planning and execution of character goals, rituals, familiar encounters if it applies.   If the character in this example held their water a little too long, having to traverse to the restroom in the back of the store might prove a challenge, depending what’s going on in the immediate environment. 😉  In other words, it’s the sense of place you’re evoking at a given moment in time.

Let’s take it one step up from there – to the “secondary” place, which are the larger parts of where your primary spaces are.   This would be something akin to your character stepping out of the primary location, into the environment surrounding that location.  Much like primary places, you have to consider the structure, but it contains far more complexities within a certain boundary.  In a primary, you could have things like the arrangement of spaces like rooms in a house or work spaces inside a business, and you can move around those dimensions, but “secondary” is more like the neighborhood, the larger town or city.  What parts comprise that, what details distinguish it from the character’s immediate sense of place and space? That’s a fair question to ask in this part of establishing your place because it’s relative to whatever primary locations you establish and how it distinguishes itself apart from that one piece in the larger puzzle.  You can consider the environment structurally, the weather, the time and its relevance to the space, the customs, the languages among other interactions/elements with which the character comes across in this scope.  Knowing details and being able to move in and out of your primary spaces into your secondary places is important because you’re going to be moving that character and involving them in the larger environment that the story entails.

Establishing place can move beyond primary and secondary levels – when considering the “where” – into as many levels as the writer wishes to explore – it’s a matter of how much focus you want to put into building it and how it plays a role in the story.  The immediate environment, of course, will have its respective importance, but being able to navigate up and down these levels (or as I like to call them – stair steps) is important for function, consistency, and impact in your story.

“When” is another part to consider in discovering the “place” in which your story functions, because history plays a great part in establishing place just as much as the physical environment.  History can give so many cues about a place – about its endurance and resilence in not just the physical dimension but also an emotional component of a place.  People are an essential part of creating a sense of place and how it may function based on past and present environments to mold the future.

If you’re writing about a place that exists in the real world, take the time to discover as many aspects of it as you can.  It’s easy if you already live in that environment and embrace the familiarity in full, but for those who may be writing about locations they’re not familiar with, it can be a challenge.  I knew in taking on a YA dystopian novel set in Argentina, I’d have to familiarize myself with aspects of the country not just in the space of the language, but also in the physical and action/reaction environment – the structure of the cities, the social issues, climate, the history – all these different aspects that could affect the sense of place that I’m establishing in my story relative to what my character perceives.  Argentina has a fascinating sense of place – not just in the beautiful landscapes of Patagonia and in the marvels of its architecture in the city, but also among the spaces where people interact, learn, and live.  I’ve learned so much already perusing documentaries, watching videos, reading first hand narratives, among other sources.

I suppose I should conclude this entry in saying that a sense of place is just as much crafted by the physical dimensions of an environment or space as it is perceived as it is by the people who shape it.  It is up to the writer to convey that sense of place by balancing the where and when as it is perceived and shaped by the who, and in doing so, create dimensions as appropriate towards the story they’re telling.

Next entry, I think I’ll go into specifics with my progress on my WIP, using my writing programs of choice (probably with a few screenshots in tow.




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