Friday, May 18, 2012

Entry # 63 - "Regarding Place: A Real Place for Fiction?"

Lonely Highlands of Scotland - May 12, 2012 - Jan Bowman

 This week I have returned after a Trans-Atlantic cruise and subsequent travels in Scotland. I am somewhat “jet-lagged,” but I have more than a few thoughts about the power and relevance of establishing place, that is - the where and when - in writing fiction. And I intend to write several subsequent “Reflections” pieces about this.

Whether landscape or cityscape, real places have been key elements for some of the most powerful novels ever written.  Joyce’s Dublin, Balzac’s Paris, Dickens’ London, Dostoyevski’s St. Petersburg are vivid places that spring to mind for avid readers. 

Establishing setting, that is - the place and time of a work of fiction, is an essential element that reveals and connects historical, cultural, social, ethical, as well as powerful emotional aspects of characters’ lives and motivations. Huck Finn needs the Mississippi setting, if we are to believe in his actions. Flannery O’Connor’s people need the 1950-60’s South. James Joyce’s people need Dublin. Characters are formed out of place. And since characters, – what they do and why they do it – informs plot, setting provides the environmental and cultural stimulation for motive.

In movies, music and shots of landscape and cityscape provide essential backdrop for action and dazzles viewers into emotionally connecting to intense actions and characters’ emotions. Think of the most recent examples used in these movies:  Hugo, War Horse, and The Descendants. Modern drama, as well as installation and performance arts, and in particular dance, are using film clips as backdrop for setting, establishing mood, tension and - yes - to "dazzle" (amaze, fill with wonder, inspire) audiences with the power of light, color, sound.

Halifax Harbor - May 8, 2012 - Jan Bowman
Unfortunately, modern readers may be inclined to skip over descriptions of place. I have had students tell me they skipped descriptions in classic works of Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, Henry James, the Brontes’ and others. Yet those writers' descriptions of landscape and cityscape provide vital connections to the actions of characters. The idea of the power derived from landscape may elude less mature readers, particularly in our culture that floats on the anxious desire for "a sound bite of action." In his guide, Fiction Writer’s Workshop, Josip Novakovich said, “These days, many writers withdraw their gazes from city architecture and country life, and as they do, their fictional worlds diminish.”  

And yet, I am reminded of Eudora Welty’s essay, “Place in Fiction,” from The Eye of the Story, in which Welty describes place powerfully.  “Place is one of the lesser angels that watch over the racing hand of fiction, perhaps the one that gazes benignly enough from off to one side, while others, like character, plot, symbolic meaning, and so on, are doing a good deal of wing-beating about her chair, and feeling, who in my eyes carries the crown, soars highest of them all and rightly relegates place into the shade. Nevertheless, it is this lowlier angel that concerns us here. There have been signs that she has been rather neglected of late; maybe she could do with a little petitioning.”

Jan Bowman’s work has appeared in Roanoke Review, Big Muddy, Broadkill Review, Trajectory, Third Wednesday, Minimus, Buffalo Spree (97), Folio, The Potomac Review, Musings, Potato Eyes, and others. She won the 2012 Roanoke Review Prize for Fiction. Her stories have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Best American Short Stories and a story was a finalist in the “So To Speak” Fiction Contest. She is working on two collections of short stories and currently shopping for a publisher for a completed story collection. She has nonfiction work pending publication in Spring 2013 Issues of Trajectory and Pen-in-Hand. She writes a weekly blog of “Reflections” on the writing life and posts regular interviews with writers and publishers.   Learn more at:

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