Place in Fiction
by Peter Gadol
Every author has aspects of narrative that he or she looks forward to in writing a book, and also areas he or she may wish to ignore (I’m thinking of the way, say, Joan Didion will ignore basic stage management in any given scene; no one ever crosses a street or sits down at a table in her fiction). For my part, I love writing about place. Setting is something I think about pretty much nonstop while moving through a first draft and subsequent revisions. It’s no surprise then that novelists whom I admire likewise seem extra-sensitive to the landscapes in their books. For me, the ancestral home at the center of Tana French’s new novel The Witch Elm becomes a lively secondary character in the narrator, Toby’s, story, a backdrop certainly, but also a foil. A certain elm tree on the property emerges as a vivid centerpiece around which the thriller turns.
I’m not sure where my interest in literary place comes from except to say I always thought AA Milne could have done more to describe Hundred Acre Wood. I’ve been very fortunate as an adult to travel abroad, but books afforded me my first explorations (actually my favorite book was the Atlas). Whenever I do travel now, I find I’m hyperalert, absorbing what details come my way, the stone streets, the faces in a market—and I want to instill in my readers the same wonder about the setting, even if I’m writing about a place they might know well.
If this resonates for you and narrative place is something you, too, are keen on, there are some essential principles I think you can keep in mind while writing:
1. Setting is dynamic.
Too often writers think about setting in the way they do about exposition as if it’s all about information that once dispatched can be filed away so the reader can barrel into the main action. It’s true that a reader will want to be located and perhaps understand what broadly lies within the perimeter of a central place, but as the chapters unfold, new areas within that space can be drawn. I’m thinking of the first section of Ian McEwan’s Atonement; readers are continually brought into different rooms in the manor, various cottages on the estate, and quite significantly to various dark gardens on the grounds.
The way I think of it, the work of depicting setting is never done, and sometimes when we go back to certain spaces we’ve already read about, they are renovated in ways that deepen the plot. I’m thinking of another Ian McEwan novel, The Comfort of Strangers, wherein lovely, mysterious Venice becomes disturbing, violent Venice.
2. Setting can function like a secondary character.
I’m less interested in idyllic, perfect fictional places than I am in places that propose conflicts for protagonists in the way secondary characters might. Mystery and thriller writers know this well. You can pick up any novel by Arnaldur Indridason and see the way the contained city of Reykjavík is like Detective Erlendur’s old friend; he knows its every street, its every trick. And yet the city again and again presents complex puzzles and, as is the case in Jar City, reveals its sinister history, hitherto opaque for our hero. Detective Erlendur will never really know Reykjavík completely, no one can.
3. Weather can deepen the tone—and climate is also dynamic.
When I define melodrama for my students, I like to refer to the classic Douglas Sirk film in which a woman is feeling melancholic and leans against a window; outside it is raining; the mood indoors and out is the same. But one needn’t descend into Sirkian expressionism to paint the mood—although rain works, certainly! Look at Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost, set in Sri Lanka, for some good monsoon/fever manipulation. I like to point to Scott Smith’s A Simple Plan as a great example of the way the dynamic climate can relate to plot: How long will snow cover up a wrecked plane? And when will a thaw reveal it? Speaking of snow, over twenty-five years later I still recall needing to wrap myself in an extra blanket when reading Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow.
4. The way one draws setting will create useful constraints.
Every aspect of writing is variable, and every writer consequently designs the internal rules for a book, the constraints necessary to give it shape. In choosing a certain point-of-view, we recognize we may be closed off from limning certain characters’ thoughts. Similarly, we make choices about setting that guide us. Is our depiction of a fictional place accurate to a real place? Are we being true to an actual map? And if the work isn’t set in the present day, are we following an appropriate historic map? Or maybe we want to wholly invent the location for our work. Although even then, there will be the question of whether our invented town or canyon or street sits in proximity to known places in the real world of the reader. Then again, some authors choose to create new worlds with new architecture and new physics (see Renee Gladman’s Ravicka trilogy).
I’m very interested in books like Jim Crace’s Harvest, which would seem to be set in the agrarian English countryside at the advent of industrialization. Yet that’s never stated explicitly, and within the hermetic world of this bleak novel, we’re left to contemplate how outsiders in small communities are blamed, demonized, and tortured. Or there are works like José Saramago’s Blindness, a nameless state wherein the population mysteriously becomes sightless and descends into anarchy—or JM Coetzee’s Childhood of Jesus series, another invented place that seems topographically and linguistically to resemble an Iberian state but not explicitly so. Crace, Saramago, and Coetzee all stay within a familiar earthly realm (unlike Gladman), yet we’re never sure where exactly we are—but we inevitably see in these invented places our own world universally reflected.
5. Setting can generate plot.
Sometimes when we plan our novels, we know where we’re going; more often we don’t, or perhaps we have a general direction, but how exactly we’ll write out the chapters remains unknown and we make discoveries along the way. And when that happens, I’ve found that setting can generate plot. When I was first writing The Stranger Game, I took my narrator Rebecca on a hike in the park north in a city not unlike Los Angeles and had her come up on a house abandoned during its construction; because of something she hears in the house, she explores and witnesses some people who might be playing the eponymous game wherein people are randomly following strangers. I knew that the book would wind toward a criminal twist, but didn’t know where exactly to stage what I wanted to happen. It worked out well to take Rebecca back to the abandoned house. And then, well, without giving too much away, I’ll just say that for yet another plot turn, I decided to take the narrator and the reader back there again.
About the vital importance of place in fiction, maybe Eudora Welty articulated it best: “Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable as art if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else. …Fiction depends for its life on place.”
Peter Gadol’s seventh novel The Stranger Game was recently published by Hanover Square Press / HarperCollins and listed as a Kirkus Reviews Best Books of 2018. FX is developing The Stranger Game as a television series. Gadol’s other novels include Silver Lake, Light at Dusk, and The Long Rain. His work has appeared in foreign editions and in journals such as Tin House, StoryQuarterly, and the Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly Journal. A past NEA fellow, Gadol is Chair of MFA Writing at Otis College of Art and Design and lives in Los Angeles.