Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

The Power of Place

"He's a real nowhere man, living in a nowhere land..."

That's a great lyric in a great song, but I don't recommend describing nowhere people and places as a goal for struggling writers. The primary job of all storytellers, whether writing fiction or non-fiction, is to create flesh-and-blood beings living in a busy three-dimensional world. If characters remain nowhere people living in nowhere lands, readers will first become baffled, then bored, and soon go on to reading something more firmly grounded on the facts of daily life.

Creating believable characters requires the utmost subtlety and sympathy any writer can bring to the task; a long book could barely scratch that subject's surface. Creating believable places, whether with lyrical flights or architectural precision, is a more meat-and-potatoes affair.

The essence of creating a place in words is see and describe: look at the world, whether one before your eyes or one in your mind's eye, and find the plainest possible words that will help your readers to see it too. In Pere Goriot Balzac paints the dining room of Maison Vauquer, a Parisian boarding house, making us see its blue-bordered plates, the boarders' napkins in numbered pigeonholes, and:

... a barometer with a monk who comes forth when it points to rain, engravings so horrible as to spoil one's appetite and all framed in varnished black wood with gold stripes, a tortoise-shell clock case inlaid with copper, a green stove, Argand lamps, in which dust mixes with oil, and a long table covered with oil cloth so greasy that a merry boarder can write his name on it with the end of his finger.

In Main Street Sinclair Lewis paints Minniemashie House, Gopher Prairie's Maison Vauquer, in similarly unflinching detail:

It was a tall lean shabby structure, three stories of yellow-streaked wood, the corners covered in sanded pine slabs purporting to symbolize stone. In the hotel office she could see a stretch of bare unclean floor, a line of rickety chairs with brass cuspidors in between, a writing desk with advertisements in mother of pearl letters on the glass covered back. The dining room beyond was a jungle of stained tablecloths and catsup bottles.

In "Ozymandias" Shelley memorably describes the ruined statue's "trunkless legs of stone" and the "sneer of cold command" chiseled into its shattered face, and as memorably evokes the emptiness of the surrounding desert:

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far way.

Our Town is usually produced with no sets or scenery, but Thornton Wilder has his Stage Manager give audiences a walking tour of little Grover's Corners:

Up here is Main Street. Way back there is the railway station; tracks go that way. Polish Town's across the tracks, and some Canuck families. Over there is the Congregational church; across the street's the Presbyterian....Here's the Town Hall and Post Office combined; jail's in the basement. Bryan once made a speech from these very steps here.

—and later in the play places the village in cosmic perspective:

Rebecca: [The minister] wrote Jane a letter and on the envelope the address was like this: It said: Jane Crofut; the Crofut Farm; Grover's Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America.

George: What's funny about that?

Rebecca: But listen, it's not finished: the United States of America; Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God—that's what it said on the envelope.

John Steinbeck opens his novel Of Mice and Men with a word picture of a tree-lined bend in the Salinas River as if he were raising the curtain on a fully dressed stage:

...under the trees the leaves lie deep and so crisp that a lizard makes a great skittering if he runs among them. Rabbits come out of the brush to sit on the sand in the evening, and the damp flats are covered with the night tracks of ‘coons, and with the spread pads of dogs from the ranches, and with the split-wedge tracks of deer that come to drink in the dark.

Then, having set his scene, he begins his drama: "...two men emerged from the path and came into the opening by the green pool."

In his fine new book, Act of Congress, Robert G. Kaiser describes elegant conference rooms on Capitol Hill:

A beige carpet with a repeating diamond motif covered the marble floor. The room was dominated by a handsome mahogany table at least twenty-five feet long, big enough to accommodate twenty-two arm chairs....Above the table a giant crystal chandelier hung from the vaulted ceiling. Three windows looked west over the magnificent Mall...

—which, sadly, often contrast with the small-minded squabbles that take place within them.

Pictures of place become most powerful when the details of the place described contribute to the unfolding story. As one fine example: the chaotic scene late in A Tale of Two Cities when stern Miss Pross battles savage Madame Defarge to the death. Dr. Manette and his daughter Lucie have fled Paris; Miss Pross, Lucie's loving nanny, has insisted on staying behind in their apartment to delay anyone who might try to follow them. Madame Defarge suddenly appears and demands, "The wife of Evrémonde, where is she?" Though "haunted by feverish apprehensions, Miss Pross does not panic:

It flashed upon Miss Pross' mind that the doors were all standing open, and would suggest the flight. Her first act was to shut them. There were four in the room, and she shut them all. She then placed herself before the door of the chamber which Lucie had occupied.

From that moment the room's four doors become integral to the action. Miss Pross, of course, knows the four rooms behind the doors are empty, but her closing the doors and taking a defiant stand before one convinces Madame Defarge that Lucie is still there. She calls out, "Wife of Evrémonde! Child of Evrémonde! Any person but this miserable fool, answer the Citizeness Defarge!" Then:

...the following silence, perhaps some latent disclosure in the expression of Miss Pross' face...whispered to Madame Defarge that they were gone. Three of the doors she opened swiftly and looked in.

            "Those rooms are all in disorder, there has been hurried packing, there are odds and ends upon the ground. There is no one in the room behind you! Let me look!"

"Never!" says Miss Pross, not budging an inch; she knows that every second she can keep Madame Defarge from opening the door gains a second for the Doctor and Lucie's escape. Madame Defarge suspects Miss Pross is lying, but she can't leave until she's opened the door and seen with her own eyes that the room is empty. Madame Defarge lunges for the door; Miss Pross grabs her around the waist; Madame Defarge punches Miss Pross' face; Miss Pross holds on for dear life; Madame Defarge pulls a pistol; Miss Pross pushes it away; "a flash and a crash," and through the smoke Miss Pross sees Madame Defarge lying dead at her feet.

That fatal pistol shot ends the drama of the doors, but Dickens, always a master creator of vividly imagined places, continues his meticulous description of Miss Pross moving about in the suddenly silent apartment:

In the first fright and horror of her situation, Miss Pross passed the body as far from it as she could.... It was dreadful to go in at the door again, but she did go in, and even went near [the body] to get her bonnet and other things she must wear. These she put on out on the staircase, first shutting and locking the door and taking away the key. She then sat down on the stairs a few moments to breathe and to cry, and then got up and hurried away.

You may or may not love Miss Pross and hate Madame Defarge as passionately as I do, but I feel sure that you can see these imaginary characters and their four-doored room as clearly as I do, and recognize them, not as nowhere people in nowhere land, but as real people living in the real world, people who may be, as the song continues, "a bit like you and me."

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Michael Lydon, who has written about popular music since the 1960s, is the author of Writing and Life, published by University Press of New England. He has also published a dozen other essays on literature through his own Franklin Street Press. Lydon teaches "The Music of Writing" at St. John's University and leads seminars for teenage writers through the Connecticut Young Writers program. Click here to read more articles by Michael Lydon.

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Comments from our users:

Friday June 7th 2013, 7:44 PM
Comment by: Graeme Roberts (Pittsford, NY)
The descriptions involved me so deeply in each situation that I felt upset and disoriented by the end. Like a roller coaster through the Haunted House. Thank you, Michael!
Saturday June 8th 2013, 2:25 PM
Comment by: Mary M. (Shelbyville, TX)
I enjoyed traveling through this article in every scene. I am a huge Dickens fan, so that was the most engrossing. A thoroughly enjoyable read and thank you.

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