How to Create Presence of Place

Would you like to create a more vivid presence of place in your fiction? Here’s a Moment of Mastery to inspire your creative process for success: Name the flora and fauna.

A subscriber to my YouTube channel suggested that I feature award-winning mystery writer James Lee Burke for this topic. His descriptive prose gives place a compelling presence while serving the story. Watch the video and/or read below.

In “Black Cherry Blues,” Burke’s naming of flora and fauna stimulates the senses and sets up character: It was a place of salt-poisoned grass, alligators, insects, magpies, turkey buzzards, drowned cows whose odor reached a half mile into the sky, tropical storms that could sand the paint off a water tower, and people like my friend who had decided to slip through a hole in the dimension and live on their own terms.”

Burke describes a world so uninviting that even before you meet the friend, you already know something about him. Who could tolerate living in this hostile place?

In “A Morning for Flamingos,” the insistent naming of plants creates a felt, human-scale space and movement through it: “My apartment was inside a walled courtyard that you entered through an iron gate and a domed brick walkway. The flower beds were thick with blooming azalea and camellia and untrimmed banana tress, and the people who lived in the second-story apartments had placed coffee cans of begonias and hung baskets of impatiens along the balcony.”

The reader looks up. In spite of the security assumed by the iron gate, the hanging plants suggest unease and add to the story’s tension.

In “Dixie City Jam,” the naming of one specific bird and plant creates a sharp-focused scene: “Down below in the muddy current, a dead snow egret floated among an island of twigs and torn camellia leaves. The egret’s wing had been broken, and above one eye was the coppery glint of an embedded BB in the feathers.” The dead bird contrasts the stark beauty of life with death.

In “Heaven’s Prisoners,” a listing of views in rapid succession creates cinematic space: “The sugar cane and rice fields were behind me now. The black earth and flooded cypress and oak trees were replaced by pastureland and piney woods, lumber mills and cotton acreage, sandy red roads that cut through the limitless pecan orchards.”

The landscape speeding by serves the story with a sense of distance and time passing.

What places do you know well? Where have you lived and visited that shaped who you are? From that knowing can come powerful presence of place for your writing. Or do research. When populating place, put in specific flora and fauna to develop character, create tension, add sensory detail, and serve the story in many ways.

WRITING PROMPT: Think of a place or look at the photo of the alley in the video. Begin a scene. Add flora and fauna. Name them. Not just a hanging plant, but a genus or species – a Japanese wisteria or Million Bells. Not just an alley cat, but a breed – a Sphynx or Savannah. See how the names enhance and suggest more for the scene and start a story.

For a free trial of my online course “Writing Fiction: 9 Ways to Mastery” go to courses.christinewalker.net

Visit my YouTube channel for videos on writing fiction, memoir, visual storytelling, and creative process. Transform Your Story —the one you’re writing, the one you’re living.

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A Man Called Ove and What Love’s Got to Do with It

“Ove is fifty-nine.” That opening line, which is the complete first paragraph of Fredrik Backman’s bestselling novel A Man Called Ove, contains a world of inference about the curmudgeonly character. He exists, he’s of an age, and he’s called “Ove.” On first glance at the book’s cover, I read “Love.” My brain wanted to insert the missing “L.” Hmm. My mind corrects —no, not “love.” It’s Ove—an unusual name. However, the author is Swedish, so maybe not so unusual. (Later checking online there are many famous Scandanavian men called Ove.) But I’m English speaking, and I can’t help but hear the refrain from one of my favorite Tina Turner songs—“What’s love got to do with it?”

Backman spends the rest of the book answering this question, even as Ove protests. As it turns out, love has everything to do with it. We’re told in the third sentence that this man called Ove “is the kind of man who points at people he doesn’t like the look of, as if they were burglars and his forefinger a policeman’s flashlight.” I admit to not liking Ove here on page one, even if he does drive a Saab—a sturdy car which once saved a friend of mine’s life. So why did I read on?

Lesson: Make the reader want to spend time with the character.

This is a fiction writer’s great challenge, especially if the main character, for the sake of the narrative arc, is not a likeable guy or anticipated hero. On page one, Ove is trying to buy an iPad or laptop. He counters his feelings of being diminished by this experience—the confusing technology, the skinny young assistant who offers more arrogance than assurance (a common sales practice that in the nonfictional world often signals how much the clerk doesn’t know him or herself)—with demands. “I want a computer!” When the clerk tells him that a laptop is a computer, Ove explodes. “You think I don’t know that!”

With this, Ove steps into the reader’s heart. Whether you’re young or old, tech literate or not, shop at Apple, Best Buy, or big box, no doubt you’ve felt as Ove does—like a complete idiot (which you know you are not), extremely frustrated (which you have been for reasons having nothing to do with buying a computer and which exist in your life outside of the store), and shamed by someone whose help you need but who makes you feel (1. too old) (2.too young) (3. too dumb) (4. t00 desperate). You choose.

In the next chapter, we meet Ove’s wife through his eyes. She doesn’t speak when he talks to her, but we believe she loves him in a way no one has ever loved him—unconditionally. We see their routines, the way she tolerates his difficult personality, perhaps even loves him all the more for it. On his daily perambulation, we meet a cat and a few of his neighbors. Ove has grievances with everyone we meet, except for his wife. And then we discover that she had died, but continues to be very much alive in his imagination. Sonja is easy to love, and soon we join Ove in grieving her loss. Misery needs company.

Lesson: Craft a pitch-perfect narrative point of view.

Backman brings us close to Ove and leaves room for surprises. It’s Ove’s world and becomes ours too. Through a close-enough but not-all-the-way close third-person, Backman draws us into Ove’s head and heart, even though Ove would push us out, as he tries to do with everyone else. We see Ove as he sees himself, but we don’t see everything or make sense of everything until the right time in the narrative. We’re close enough to feel empathy for him and, at times, affinity with him. We often see or learn something that Ove doesn’t yet understand or never will. We are at once within Ove and outside of him, growing to care for him as his neighbors do, cheering him on to fail at each attempt he makes to end his life and to win happiness in the end.

With admirable skill, the author crafts a pitch-perfect, humorous, and deeply empathic narrative that keeps the reader wondering what’s next for Ove and hoping for the best. We feel the fist of his heart opening to accept the love of a family that move in next door, of people he meets and tries to avoid, of neighbors who have lived on his street for decades.

The last chapter could be called “A Man Called Ove and a Reader Who Laughs and Cries because She’s Going to Miss Him When She Closes the Book.”