In John Updike’s story Pigeon Feathers and short novel Of the Farm, an 80-acre farm plays a central role. The fictional place is based on Updike’s mother’s birthplace, a property near Plowville, Pennsylvania, where Updike moved with his family at the age of thirteen. The farm had been owned by Updike’s grandparents, sold by his grandfather when the family moved to Shillington (a town renamed Olinger in Updike’s stories), and repurchased by Updike’s mother. The author spent his formative teen years there, isolated and encouraged by his mother to write.
Lesson: Engage your fictional place in conflict, just as you do with characters, to make it come alive
The fact that a fictional place is based on a real place is not reason enough to make readers believe it. In Updike’s work, the farm is an animate presence, consistent one story to the other. When I read Pigeon Feathers I developed loyalty to its cast of inhabitants, including a boy named David who is a stand-in for Updike. In Of the Farm, I initially felt as if the new inhabitants were imposters. The Updike stand-in here is a man named Joey, who visits the farm on a mission to help his mother and gain her acceptance of his new wife. In Pigeon Feathers, the farm and David’s relationship to it had been so convincing that I initially found myself wondering: What right did Joey have to use David’s home for his own childhood memories? But Joey stakes his claim.
This liveliness of place comes not just from Updike’s descriptions, such as this narration by Joey: We went up a sharp little rise and there, on the level crest where Schoelkopf’s weathered mailbox stood knee-deep in honeysuckle and poison ivy, its flopped lid like a hat being tipped, my wife first saw the farm. It comes also from giving the farm a role in the story; it’s a source of pleasure and pain, love and conflict.
In the Pigeon Feathers, there is friction between David’s parents over the farm and in Of the Farm, even though Joey’s father has died, the friction that had been between his parents lingers as a palpable force threatening Joey’s new marriage. Early in Of the Farm, Joey expresses his relationship with it: …whenever I returned, after no matter how great a gap of time, to this land, the acres flowed outward from me like a form of boasting. But he lives with the memories of conflict between his parents caused by the farm and considers this possibility: … my mother had undervalued and destroyed my father… had brought him to a farm which was in fact her giant lover, and had thus warped the sense of the masculine within me, her son.
When Joey mows the field, sweating in the hot sun, his technique is: to slice in one ecstatic straight thrust, up the middle and then to narrow the two halves, whittling now at one and now at the other, entertaining myself with flanking maneuvers acres wide and piecemeal mop-ups. His mother’s method is: to embrace the field, tracing its border and then on a slow square spiral closing in until one small central patch was left. Their differing styles with the tractor amplify their personal differences, as Joey describes: I imitated war, she love. In the end, our mowed fields looked the same, except that my mother’s would have more scraggly spots where she had lifted the cutter over a detected pheasant’s nest or had spared an especially vivid patch of wildflowers.
Joey’s mother is married to the farm. The only way she’ll leave it is through death. The mowing metaphor foreshadows the negotiated truce that the inevitable event will bring. He will inherit the farm—his mother’s farm—with all its history of sorrow and joy.
Lesson: Animate the landscape by putting it “in the body”
A masterful writer wouldn’t be content with the “vivid” descriptor in the above sentence, and Updike is masterful. He has Joey convey the liveliness of the wildflowers: Black-eyed susans, daisy fleabane, chicory, goldenrod, butter-and-eggs each flower of which was like a tiny dancer leaping, legs together—all of these scudded past the tractor wheels.
As with the writing of character, putting the landscape “in the body” makes the fictional place real and felt. As Joey mows on the tractor, his senses heighten to the landscape, now become erotic…Crickets sprang crackling away from the slow-turning wheels; butterflies loped and bobbed above the flattened grass as the hands of a mute concubine might examine, flutteringly, the corpse of her giant lover. The sun grew higher. The metal hood acquired a nimbus of heat waves that visually warped each stalk. The tractor body was flecked with foam and I, rocked back and forth on the iron seat shaped like a woman’s hips, alone in nature, as hidden under the glaring sky as at midnight, excited by destruction, weightless, discovered in myself a swelling which I idly permitted to stand, thinking of Peggy. My wife is a field.
Lesson: Orient the reader
The action of Pigeon Feathers centers around the barn and house, while that of Of the Farm revolves around the field, garden, berry patches, and house. The same structures and natural elements appear in both the story and novel, but in different proportion. The fictional surroundings in both feel real and consistent.
As writers, we can map our fictional places or use other methods to discover and know these places well before or during the writing process. As readers, it’s not essential that we are able to map a place in order to believe it, but with Updike we could. Consistency of place—an author’s grasp of direction, scale, weather, light, landscape, landmarks, flora, fauna, architecture—orients readers and allows us to feel “at home” with the story.