So…a few years back I was teaching a general “boot-camp” style writing class for the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference, and at PWC teaching a workshop means that I have to read and critique some manuscripts as well. Frankly, the reading and critiquing stories or partials takes me ten times as long as any prep for standing up in front of an audience to talk about writing.
This particular year, one of the manuscripts was a story that was set, ostensibly, in a florist shop in Naples, Italy. In the submitted 15 pages there was not a single description of place. I mean, not even a generic “flower-shop-anywhere” sort of description. The story, whatever it was about, might as well have been taking place on a nude stage, devoid of a single prop. Without setting, it was a story presented in a vacuum.
When confronted with this news, the writer defended herself by saying she could not go to Naples, did not know the city, and could not provide the necessary level of detail. It was something akin to “I can’t get the detail right, so I’m not even going to attempt it.”
Now, I happen to be someone who has written fiction set in Bronze Age Ireland (Tain and Remscela), in 1841 New York State (Fitcher’s Brides), in a Philadelphia that has never existed (The Pure Cold Light), and in a world, Shadowbridge, that I built myself out of thin air and lots of retooled mythography. So defending your work with “I can’t go there!” does not remotely win you a free pass with me. And on the larger front, we hereabouts all write fantasy…do any of us limit ourselves to places we’ve visited?
But back to this particular story. In fact, by sheer coincidence, the week before the conference (and well after I’d read her story), the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Sunday travel section featured Naples as its main article. With photos. I brought a copy of that with me.
As an exercise, I made this writer sit there and look at the photos, and write down everything she could describe in them. She hadn’t even read the article. Just the pictures. One was a scene overlooking the water. Another was the view from a café. I don’t remember what the third one showed. Using those photos, I asked her to describe the smells for each place. The temperature. The feel of the street or ground.
We had not a single character (although, interestingly, one did begin to emerge), no story, just place. In 15 minutes she had sensory details based on a real Napoli that she had never visited. She hadn’t even gotten inside the florist’s shop yet. But now she would. Now she had the inkling of a world that was not where she lived, was not full of “her.” That was a big step forward for a 15 minute investment of time. Was she going to get some things wrong? Absolutely. Was she done immersing herself in place? Definitely not.
Kate Wilhelm describes your story being the tip of a pyramid grounded in the real world. In “place.” This is true on so many levels that it seems to me worth beating like a drum over and over: Your places must exist or you are wasting everyone’s time, including your own. Your characters are expressions of the context in which they live; meaning that their world has made them, defined them, screwed them up.
How has it screwed them up? Go write a 500 word essay telling me how.
Chances are, you’ll yank the threads of a potential story out of that essay. At the very least, you’ll know more about your characters than you did an hour earlier.
The more you know of place, the better you can understand your characters, because they are of that place/time/world. Fiction is finally about characters and what happens to them. How are you going to know who they are or what can happen to them if you don’t know their world?
GREGORY FROST’s latest novel-length work is the YA-crossover Shadowbridge duology (Random House), voted “one of the four best fantasy novels of the year” by the American Library Association; it was also a finalist for the James Tiptree Jr. Award. His historical thriller, Fitcher’s Brides, was a Best Novel finalist for both World Fantasy and International Horror Guild Awards. His story, “Madonna of the Maquiladora,” is currently being featured on Story Hub: http://www.thestoryhub.ca/
Other Frost short fiction appears in Ellen Datlow’s Supernatural Noir anthology. The novella, “T. Rhymer,” written collaboratively with Jonathan Maberry will be out later this year in the anthology Dark Duets. He directs the fiction writing program at Swarthmore College. A 1975 Clarion graduate, he’s also taught Clarion three times. He says he hopes the Buddha will bring him a pony.