A sense of place

Silk’s Post #10 — Ooh, ooh, ooh, stop! Slow down, slow down. This is where I want to be. I want to enjoy this, explore everything. Oh please … I don’t want this to end …

Not dialogue from a sex scene in my novel. This was me talking to my husband Sunday morning – not in (ahem) our bedroom, but in our car as we drove south on Interstate 5 in the driving rain, on our way to California for a whirlwind family Thanksgiving rendezvous. What got me so exercised as I stared out the shotgun seat window, watching the exit signs slide by?

University of Washington

Pike Place Market, Seattle

We were driving right by my novel’s locations, the ones I’m burning to explore, understand, become intimate with. Seattle, Whidbey Island, the University of Washington campus, Puget Sound, Deception Pass and so many other tantalizing venues.

I ‘know’ these places. But I don’t KNOW these places the way I need to. I want their smells in my nose, their sounds in my ears. I want to know the shortcut from my protagonist’s apartment to her favourite restaurant, and what – exactly – she might see if she walks that route in the dead of night. I want to see the view from her window, sit in the transit shelter where she catches a bus, stand on the beach west of her family’s Whidbey Island home, and see the road where her brother had his accident.

For me, place is always one of the most important characters in any book. When I took the plunge and wrote my first novel (the one calling to me from the depths of my computer files, where it awaits a strenuous rewrite), I took the advice of many writing gurus and wrote what I know … at least in terms of location. And what I know is my adopted island home. A place locals often refer to, with fondness, as Planet Saltspring. I know my own island so well I can tell you which patch of bigleaf maple trees along the Stewart Road route from the south end to Ganges village has the best show of golden colour in the fall. And I can describe about 90 per cent of the fascinating items you’ll see at the colourful Saturday Market in Centennial Park.

I want to know the locations of my new story this well. But I wanted to stretch out beyond Saltspring. It was time for me to ‘leave home’ and write about a different setting. Seattle and Whidbey Island are not dramatically different from Vancouver and Saltspring Island, that’s true. But every place on Earth is unique, like a fingerprint. And to be a dynamic, memorable – perhaps even haunting – ‘setting character’ for a novel, that place must be authentic. A living thing.

And here we were, speeding down I-5, right past it all. No time to stop because of our breakneck schedule. I could have wept.

I am always mightily impressed by writers who can create an authentic sense of place when setting their novel in location where they’ve never lived. Maybe never even visited. What supreme confidence! To craft a memorable setting – a setting essential to the story and its characters – by drawing on research and imagination alone.

This is, to me, perhaps a more daring feat than the kind of creative world-building that makes fantasy or science fiction so appealing, as awesome as that may be in its own right. The simple reason: no one alive can really complain about how wrong you got it. With real places, every hint of inauthenticity stands out like London Bridge in the middle of a desert to a person who actually calls that place home.

World-building takes magic. Writing about real places before you really know them intimately – that takes crust.

So, as I watched my new novel’s landmarks disappear in the rearview mirror on Sunday, a sense of longing and promise gnawing at me, I made a vow. Like General Douglas MacArthur, shall return. Like the Terminator, I’ll be baahk. I will walk in my characters’ footsteps and look through their eyes at the inspiring, nuanced world in which their story plays out. I will learn what makes this ‘setting-character’ tick, experience its resonance. Bring it to life so that no one could ever mistake it for someplace else.

But not now.

Now, I just need to write and keep writing. Write, right or wrong. Take my best shot. Invent what I don’t really know. Screw stuff up, maybe. Describe things I’ve never seen and paint my settings with colours I know may be off a shade – or even laughably inaccurate.

And then, as Joe described in his fabulous Las Vegas Rewrite blog, I will revisit the scene of the crime and find out how close I came. Or didn’t. And fix accordingly.

Ah, the joys of rewrite. Another bridge to cross.

Deception Pass Bridge, Whidbey Island

5 thoughts on “A sense of place

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