When I was enrolled in a fiction course while earning my M.F.A. degree in creative writing, I received my first short story draft back with feedback that read something akin to “Place detail lacking.” I’m sure that I furrowed my brows. I was confused. After all, time and location had been indicated and my characters’ conversations weren’t floating in air—I’d remembered to root them to scene. So, what could Professor Sandra Jackson-Opoku possibly have meant by her comment?
I soon learned to think of the concept of “place” as being far more encompassing than that of “setting.” What she taught the class proved to be one of the most valuable lessons that I learned in my program: To think of place as its own character and to use place to support the story, in relation to characterization and plot. Place is vital in not only fiction but also creative nonfiction and poetry. The discussion that follows is essentially the same skeletal framework that my professor taught to me and that I now teach, with the addition of my own examples, to show why you, as a writer, should know your place.
Place can be used as a symbol, such as an island as isolation or water as rebirth or weather as indicative of mood. It may be used as an extended metaphor, as in the instance of the rooms in Edgar Allan Poe’s, “Masque of the Red Death,” as analogous to the stages of life from birth to death. Place may also be employed as the antagonist as in humans vs. nature; Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm comes to mind.
Place can be used as a mimetic device, in which it mirrors human behavior; for instance, Miss Havisham’s house in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations and Miss Emily’s house in William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” are in states of decay, which reflect the characters’ decline. Human behavior may also mirror place, as with the boys’ increasingly uncivilized behavior on the island in William Goldings’ Lord of the Flies or Teacake’s irrational behavior as he and Janie Starks travel through the Florida Everglades in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Place can also be used to depict a certain atmosphere. Use of social, cultural, and political space, which are often inextricably interlocked, can show norms of a time period. For example, in Ann Petry’s The Street, set in WWII-era Harlem, Lutie Johnson strives for the American dream but is blocked by overwhelming racism, sexism, and classism. She becomes, in fact, a tragic hero. Such use of space can influence readers’ outlooks about characters by magnifying or diminishing the conflict they face. To illustrate, if Suzy breaks up with Johnny in front of their high school lockers after school, readers’ sympathies aren’t going to be as strong as they would be if she sends him a “Dear Johnny” letter, and he receives it while fighting on the frontline during the Vietnam War. A site of collective memory may also engender strong emotions. In Brian Doyle’s flash piece, “Leap,” for instance, the mention of “south tower,” clues all readers who lived through or learned about 9/11 in to the setting without directly stating it. Other types of space that build place and, therefore, story, include sacred space—any place from a church to nature to a writing desk—that shows elevated importance, and mystic space, in which readers are asked to suspend disbelief and to embrace that which extends beyond the five senses, such as in the instances of magical realism or speculative fiction.
Place can be viewed through different lenses. When a character travels to a foreign land and then judges its inhabitants through his or her own cultural aesthetic, for instance, by considering the indigenous people as “savages” or “barbarians,” it is egocentrism. In contrast, when a character judges outsiders with fear or hatred, as a resident of a small town may do to a stranger or as a citizen of a particular land may do to a visitor from abroad or a new immigrant, it is xenophobia.
No matter the creative genre, you have place at your disposal to use as a tool to affect both characterization and plot. It is invaluable. Why settle for time and location then, when so many other possibilities exist to intensify your readers’ connections to your work?