According to James Scott Bell, in his book entitled, “Plot and Structure,” the power inherent in describing the world in which your characters inhabit is paramount. He uses this example from Dennis Lehane’s “Mystic River.”
“After work that night Jimmy Marcus had a beer with his brother-in-law, Kevin Savage, at the Warren Tap, the two of them sitting at the window and watching some kids play hockey. There were six kids and they were fighting in the dark, their faces gone featureless with it. The Warren Tap was tucked away on a side street in the old stockyard district.”
In a few short sentences, we know exactly where we are; we can picture it. No back story is necessary here.
A character does not exist outside of a culture. If you describe a traveler, you must identify, not only where they came from, but also the strange new world in which they find themselves. If you are writing about a period in history, the clothes, the method of transportation, or the way the enter a building, will give necessary clues.
Taken to fiction, it means the place and culture of which you are the most familiar, your first home, must now be examined with a new eye. In order to understand the essence of a place, the best way to grasp its meaning can be found in peeling back the layers of civilization. Who was there first? Who was driven out and by whom? Who fought for this land? Who won and who lost? Is a suburb built on what was once farmland and if so, what remnants of that rural community still exist? Is there an Inn that was once a Blacksmith’s Forge, or a Mill? It may still be the focal point of the region.
I used to describe the neighborhood of my youth as a typical, Leave it to Beaver suburb in the west end of Toronto. That may have sufficed for conversation, but in order to create the setting for a novel, it had to be fleshed out more fully and put through the writer’s lens.
We lived on the banks of a river called the Humber. In 1615, the explorer Etienne Brule, traveling with Champlain, became the first European to enter the happy hunting grounds that once were home to the Seneca tribe. A plaque outside an old mill, now converted to a restaurant, and Inn, commemorates this event. As a child, it would give me chills to think about it. 1615! What was our world like then?
More research led me to new discoveries about my former home. The Seneca tribe inhabited those shores for over five thousand years. Then in the 1920’s, a development company bought a vast track of land and created a neighborhood with a theme. Anglia pars, anglia procal. A little bit of England, far from England. They set out to duplicate a setting reminiscent of a fine borough in London. Winding streets, stone houses, leaded paned windows, oh we looked English all right. Did we in any way take on this sensibility? We did indeed, until more groups came and great diversity toppled this little enclave. The buildings remain, remarkably and beautifully preserved; now the inhabitants are different. Nothing stays exactly the same, yet the character of the place is unchanged, immovable and stalwart. As a writer, a place can be the fabric from which we cut the cloth of our characters. The style of the setting, sets the tone, and puts the characters on their initial footing.
Where do they go from there? Do they want to stay, or are they desperate to get out? If they do want to remain, will they be able to ride all the changes in store? Very few of us in modern times live in the places we inhabited in our youth. Given this, the coating of nostalgia can be draped over the past, and we can look at it from a distance and through rose colored glasses. If home is where the heart is, does the allegiance we feel for our first home remain with us forever, or do we shed it as a reptile leaves it skin? If so, do we not still see the outline of the former inhabitant if we happen upon that skin?
While I am not sure who said it first, the old adage of write what you know is apt. If your character is set in a place entirely foreign, then read as much as you can of its history. If writing fantasy, a place still needs its nouns. It needs something indigenous. It must have its rocks and trees.
” Home is a name, a word, it is a strong one; stronger than magician ever spoke, or spirit ever answered to, in the strongest conjuration.” Charles Dickens