Astonishingly soon, I’ll be finishing my coursework for UNH’s MFA program. In the quick months that follow, I’ll spend my time getting ready to live in my fourth state in four years. I’ll pack up my belongings and move them under a new roof for the tenth time in ten years. And at some point between the packing and the unpacking, I’ll also read through the stories I’ve written while here and decide what to keep, what to revise, and what to kill as I assemble my thesis.
All these tangled thoughts of moves and stories have got me thinking about how important creating a sense of Place can be in fiction.
A year or two ago, I would have laughed if you told me I’d be thinking this. As someone who’s moved around a lot, both as an adult and a young child, I’ve sometimes found it hard to connect to different physical places. As a literary concept, the thought of place is rarely at the forefront of my mind when I’m writing.
It might be important to draw a line here between what I think of as setting and what I think of as place. I imagine setting as a combination of the immediate details—the images, the sounds, the sensations of the spot your character lives in—the sorts of things that allow a reader to feel grounded in a piece. I think it’s a lot tougher to define a sense of place, which in turn makes it a lot tougher to create. For me, Place, that weird, nebulous word, is everything that exists just beyond the direct specificity of a story’s setting details. In real life, place can be sometimes overwhelming. But in a story, these features play a more peripheral role—that’s where the “sense” comes in. The writer must balance in these extra details with the motion of the plot, or with the desires of the characters.
In her essay “Writing Short Stories,” adapted from a craft talk originally given to a conference of Southern writers, Flannery O’Connor discussed the importance of what she called “the gifts of region”—the small peculiarities and idiosyncrasies in language, attitudes, food, decorative choices, etc—that can give the reader an idea of the “texture of existence that surrounds” the characters in a piece. O’Connor was a master at creating place. Though her specific settings vary from story to story, a larger sense of Georgia in the 1950s and 60s pervades her writing. Her characters sweat their place through their pores.
And this, I think, is why I’ve ultimately decided how important place really is for a writer: It’s got strong implications for characters and plot.
Recently, the Barnstorm fiction wrote a piece on what we look for in submissions. One of our main desires is to see stories where plot points come from within characters. Our Homes, our Places, are hugely influential to the people we are and the people we try to be. In “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” perhaps Flannery O’Connor’s best-known story, the grandmother’s desires for respect and attention drive the actions of the story. But these desires are a direct product of the conflict she perceives between the Place of her youth and the Place she witnesses out the car window. Similarly, the story’s antagonist, aptly named the Misfit, has been driven mad by the feeling that he is not at peace with his environment, even though he is very much a product of it.
Though I often see many writers (myself included) skip this important Place-step in character drafting, I believe it can contribute to a richer understanding of the person’s true heart. From there, the reader gets to witness a more fully realized arc.
-Jimmy Roach, Fiction Editor
“Writing Short Stories” excerpt available here.