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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How to Write Fiction – Tell Truths

“Truth” is a hot topic these days. Truthiness. Truth isn’t truth. Alternative facts. Fake news. Fiction is an art form based on questioning and finding deeper truths about ourselves and others—about what it is to be human.

In the 1960s, author Flannery O’Connor said,We live now in an age which doubts both fact and value, which is swept this way and that by momentary convictions. Written a half-century ago, her words speak to us today. “Instead of reflecting a balance from the world around him, the novelist now has to achieve one from a felt balance inside himself.”

For instance, a writer’s story about a town’s divisive politics—one group of people clinging to the past, another group wanting change—could become a polemic if the writer uses the narrative to argue his opinion and refute the other.

But what if this writer, inspired by seeing a small-town Fourth of July parade, creates a fictional character, who clings to the past and is afraid of the new. Let’s call him Ray. He’s a mechanic, a restorer of cars. His daughter marries someone of another race or religion. Then a family that Ray sees as “foreign” moves in next door. He’s angry. He’s used to fixing things, but he can’t fix this. He doesn’t have the tools. His world is disrupted. Now we have the beginnings of a story. Because fiction is about transformation, we know Ray must change, but how and why? What actions will he take?

In what ways will the daughter and neighbors also transform? Will they help Ray through a crisis? Will he help them? The writer avoids a timeworn polemic and explores universal human truths about choosing to love and making things right. Whether humorous, poignant, or tragic, the story becomes timeless. Through writing it, through reading it, we discover our own ability or inability to love deeply and to restore lovingly what’s been damaged.

Wherever fiction is set, past or present, fictional town or real, when it’s grounded in human truths, it will ring true for readers now and into the future. Without human truths, fiction would feel false. By telling truths with imagination, we make fiction readable, believable and memorable.

Go to https://courses.christinewalker.net for a free trial of my online course “Writing Fiction: 9 Ways to Mastery.”

Now – go out into the world or turn on the news. Listen for differing opinions and deeply held beliefs. Listen for anger and hurt. Listen for human truths. Then give one deep belief to one character, the opposite to another.

Write a scene where they argue. What truths are at the depths of their emotions? What does each character have to gain or lose by changing? You, the writer, takes each side in your heart. What can you learn from them?

Prepare yourself for moments of mastery!

Trouble with Characters

I’ve been thinking a lot about conflict. I prefer to avoid it in real life, but must heighten it in my fiction. My teachers at the Bennington MFA Writing Seminars said, “Give your characters more trouble!” Every good writing manual says, “Conflict is the heart of fiction.” Characters without conflict are nice people we might like to meet for lunch but wouldn’t compel us to turn pages when reading about them.

Lesson: Trouble comes in many forms. Imagine the possibilities!

Author Nancy Margulies invents troubled characters —“strangers” for whom she feels “compassion for their predicaments and gratitude for their honesty.”

As promised (see my post of November 25, 2013), Margulies has written a group of stories titled Sudden Friction. They comprise a chapter in her book of short shorts Animal Husband, where she dishes out all kinds of conflict. Her inspiration comes from one-word prompts—such as patient, bridge, final act—given by her writing group.

Here are a few characters: the six-year-old girl who can’t speak but conveys love to her mother: seven-year-old Millicent and Michael, conjoined twins separated at the age of four; Rose, a repentant arsonist; Ralph and JoyLee, whose marriage stinks; Francie, who tries to deconstruct her horrific childhood; Maggie and Peggy spilling secrets about their high school days; Marsha, who follows in the footsteps of a man on a beach; Grandma Nell, who believed a bracelet would protect her; a daughter hospitalized because her father commanded her to dive; a beat-up teenager who knocks on his aunt’s door.

Lesson: Let the reader be the judge, not the author.

The process of writing “whatever comes to mind without judging or editing” allows room for the compassion needed to conjure such misfortunate characters onto the page. Margulies sketches them vividly for us to witness. Will we like them or care about them? Maybe, maybe not. Do they even like or care about themselves? Not always. But most of them come to life after only a few paragraphs or pages. And many of them stick in the mind and heart after meeting.

These people could go anywhere—they’re fiction! Margulies takes them briefly into imagined circumstances and offers unexpected, wise, or open-ended resolutions. If we follow them beyond the stories, dig deeper into character, what would we discover? Some of her characters experience similar troubles and a few characters reappear. Margulies explores themes of abuse, abandonment, secrecy, confrontation, and acceptance. “Bad Daddy” show up in many guises, bad deeds go unpunished, and people hope for the best.

Lesson: Let there be rays of light in the darkness!

In Margulies’ stories, truth is mercurial and promises vanish, but otherwise bleak circumstances are gifted by her humor. Even the most despicable characters or ones that might in other hands beg for our pity, receive her comic relief. These people open their closets and shut their mouths. They threaten, murder, betray, repent, apologize, and forgive—not necessarily in that order. They witness magic; they look on the bright side. When a crystal horse come alive in Macy’s and quickly disappears, the clerk makes the best of being left with horseshit, not a magic horse. The crystal turds “are stunning,” after all.

Lesson: Explore a range of real emotions & find out what your characters need.

If we are loved and nourished, educated and accomplished, where’s the problem? If we are safe and have self-esteem, what is the real need? Is hatred, shame, terror, or longing the most powerful emotion to explore in fiction? Is sex or justice a more compelling goal for a character to seek? Each of us lives in our own skin, as do our characters, and any range or amount of troubles can be authentic and compelling. Any need can be intriguing. It all depends on our ability to write characters, and their ability to carry the story.

For my Read to Write Books workshops, I develop visuals to aid writers in their craft. Recently, I’ve been struggling with a protagonist who is, by her own admission, flawed and forlorn. I envisioned her narrative arc from feeling deadened inside to full of life, from grieving to gracious. But the problem is, her troubles aren’t interesting enough to keep the reader turning pages. I need to re-imagine her flaws, up the ante on her problems, heighten her losses and gains. Below, I’ve posted visuals I created for the Love & Emotions workshop. I’m re-visiting these schematics to give my protagonist more conflict and depth. And I thank Nancy Margulies for her example of compassionately imagining and presenting troubled characters—ones we may come to love or hate, but who eagerly claim the right to take up space on the page and in our hearts and minds.

May all your troubles be interesting!

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