The Power of Place

As a writer, I love revising and rewriting. As an editor, I do almost none of it. Critiques, yes. When a writer I don’t know asks me to edit a book-length manuscript, I generally suggest critique as a first step. I read the ms., make suggestions about plot, characterization, structure, and all that good big-picture stuff, but then the writer does the heavy lifting, not me.

For me, revising and rewriting is like first-drafting in that the ms. takes up residence in my head. My mind works on it when I’m not paying conscious attention. This is why character insights and solutions to plot snags often come to me when I’m walking with the dog or kneading bread.

I’ve learned that when I take on a revise-or-rewrite job as an editor, it often pushes my own writing out of my head. So I avoid developmental and structural editing and stick to stylistic editing, copyediting, and proofreading. (All these things go by different names. In “Editing? What’s Editing?” I explain what I more or less mean by them.)

But I recently (very recently, like this past week) took on a rewrite job for a client. It was short: a new, five-page prologue to a novel that’s been accepted for publication. I also knew the novel well, having worked on it in its earlier stages, and I believe in it.

I read the author’s five pages through. The plot was solid. It introduced key themes and characters that would be developed later. It segued neatly into chapter 1. Yeah, the point of view jumped around a bit, and there was a chunk of historical context recounted in a narrative voice that didn’t belong to any of the characters, but my rewriterly mind was already in gear, working out possible alternatives.

I called up the file. A 10-year-old boy is stretched out on the roof of his uncle’s house, using his BB gun to keep birds away from the abundant ripening grapes hanging from a trellis. I knew this kid well: the novel is his story. I could hear his older sister playing hopscotch in front of the house. But I couldn’t see what he was seeing because I’ve never been there and never even seen pictures of what this house, this neighborhood, this small town in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, might have looked like in 1975, which is when the story begins.

For me as a writer, place is crucial. As I blogged in “The Importance of Place“; “Every story, remembered or made-up, takes place somewhere. Where it takes place affects what takes place, deeply, profoundly, deeply, indelibly. Characters, both fictional and nonfictional, are deeply affected by where they are and where they’ve come from. Images, characters, and whole plots grow out of the soil they take root in.”

Both place and time are critical to this particular novel: Lebanon in the spring of 1975 was on the brink of a bloody civil war that devastated the country for 15 years. That 10-year-old boy’s life will be radically transformed by this war, and the incident in the prologue is a harbinger of things to come. The prologue needed to show readers what he was seeing and hearing. How could that happen if I couldn’t see and hear it myself?

I emailed the author. We talked on the phone. How close together are the houses? How long is the driveway? Are the grapes used for eating or winemaking? What do the birds look like? Where have all the grownups gone? Is the garden in front of the house or in back? How big is the garden pond?

Finally, finally the scene began to play out in my head. My fingers moved on the keyboard and words appeared or rearranged themselves on my laptop screen. The scene stayed in the 10-year-old’s point of view. The historical context can be worked into a later chapter, but I couldn’t help noticing that it is subtly suggested here in the ripening grapes being threatened by birds while a boy tries to scare them off with his BB gun.

At this point I’m rarely surprised when place turns out to be the key to a scene, but I’m awed by writers who routinely bring to life periods they didn’t live in, places they’ve never been, and times and places that never existed. The research, the extrapolation, the imagination, the finessing of details that can’t be known for sure — it all has to be there, and seem so complete and inevitable that most readers barely notice.

What You Don’t Know

There’s nothing like writing to show you what you don’t know.

The other day I took two of my characters on a field trip. Rather, they took me. These are the same two, Shannon and Jackie, I blogged about last month in “The Importance of Place,” after they took me to the Gay Head Cliffs.

Shannon has lived on Martha’s Vineyard for decades. Sister Jackie has never been there before. Shannon is playing tour guide. (Come to think of it, there’s nothing like playing tour guide to show you what you don’t know — and also what you do. Shannon listens to facts and factoids coming out of her mouth that she didn’t know she knew. I didn’t know I knew them either.)

So we went window-shopping in Edgartown, where in novel time it’s Thanksgiving weekend so some shops but not all are closed for the season, then we strolled along State Beach. The sheer vastness of the ocean started getting to us, so Shannon and I simultaneously hit on the same antidote: “Let’s go to the Campground.”

In the Campground — formally the grounds of the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association — more than 300 cottages sit on about 34 acres of land.

I’ve been to the Campground many times over the years, but never accompanied by these two characters. As we walked, the conversation they were having flowed in interesting directions, shaped by the narrow walkways and the colorful, cheek-by-jowl cottages.

The Pink House from the front

The Pink House from the front

The most colorful, and by far the most photographed, cottage in the Campground is the Pink House so of course Shannon guided Jackie in that direction. When we got to it, I was glad we’d made the trip.

In my memory the Pink House stood apart from its neighbors, as if they’d startled at the sight of it and taken a giant step backward.

But it doesn’t. It’s on a corner, yes, but it’s nestled as close to its immediate neighbors as any other house.

Jackie then wandered around to the back of the house. The Pink House may be the most photographed cottage in the Campground, and maybe the most photographed building on Martha’s Vineyard, but I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a photo of its backside.

Pink House, rear view, with mystery plant

Pink House, rear view, with mystery plant

The trouble started when I got home and started to write. What the hell were those tall stalky things on the left? I wrote “tall stalky shrubbery” and knew immediately that I wasn’t going to let myself get away with that.

Like what if I were reading about a character running through a meadow noticing little white flowers and little blue flowers over there and hard orange berries over here? A little of that goes a long way. At some point I start to suspect that the author didn’t know the names of the things and didn’t care enough to find out. This subtly undermines my confidence in her knowledge of other things.

So I posted that rear-view photo on Facebook and asked for help identifying the tall stalky thingies. The first two friends who responded said it was hard to tell without foliage or flowers, but they thought it was probably rose of Sharon. Others thought privet, which I’d always thought was an evergreen but it turns out it comes in deciduous too. Trying to confirm one or the other was difficult because all the pretty pictures I found on the internet were of flowers; no stalks were visible.

Rose of sharon is currently in the lead.

Sturgis’s Law #6 says “Your writing will teach you what you need to know.” This is how it works. That particular scene may disappear from future drafts of the novel, but now I’ve a pretty good idea of what rose of Sharon looks like. Who knows where it will show up next.

The Importance of Place

The Gay Head Cliffs, seen from the observation area.

The Gay Head Cliffs, seen from the observation area.

Two days before the late January snow fell, I drove all the way to Aquinnah to see the Gay Head Cliffs. My Alaskan malamute, Travvy, rode shotgun, his nose usually as far out the window as it could get.

In the Forester’s back seat were two of my characters, protagonist Shannon and her long-estranged sister Jackie. Shannon’s in her mid-fifties. Jackie’s three years younger. They survived their violently alcoholic family in different ways, Shannon by fleeing, Jackie by sticking it out. After almost four decades of minimal contact, it’s Thanksgiving weekend and Jackie has come for a visit.

I live on, and write about, Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the coast of Massachusetts. Martha’s Vineyard is famous, not least because the president and one of his recent predecessors vacation here. I write about the place and the people who are still here when the celebrities leave.

Gay Head light

The Gay Head lighthouse. In a major engineering feat last fall it was moved 129 feet back from the cliff that was eroding out from under it.

The Gay Head Cliffs are celebrities in their own right, celebrities who never leave. People who know nothing else about Martha’s Vineyard have seen them in photographs. Shannon, like me and many another year-round resident, is somewhat jaded about both celebrities and tourist attractions, but she’s showing her sister around and it’s late November: no chattering crowds, ample places to park.

At this point I realized that my mental image of the cliffs looked like a picture postcard. I hadn’t been there in years. I couldn’t remember the path down to the beach or what the beach looked like. Hence this mid-January expedition. I kept my eyes on the road, occasionally scratched Travvy’s back, and listened to Shannon and Jackie talking in the back seat.

After I parked the car — there was no shortage of available space — we walked past the silent summer shops and up to the observation area. Shannon and Jackie leaned on the post-and-rail fence. Shannon pointed out over the water. “That’s Devil’s Bridge,” she said. “Major hazard to navigation.”

Jackie shaded her eyes against the sun and squinted. “I can’t see anything,” she replied.

“Neither can the ships,” said Shannon.

Most Vineyard people know about the wreck of the City of Columbusa passenger steamship bound from Boston to Savannah. It ran aground on Devil’s Bridge, a submerged rocky shoal, in the dark early hours of January 18, 1884, and quickly sank. Despite heroic rescue efforts that morning by the Gay Headers and the crew of a passing vessel, 104 died; only 29 were rescued.

The anniversary had just passed when we drove to Aquinnah, so it was on my mind, but when Shannon said “Neither can the ships,” I froze. Rescue is a major theme in my novel in progress, starting with the rescue of Wolfie, the title character, who was inspired by (you guessed it) Travvy — rescue and the difficulty of recognizing threats before it’s too late. And there it was, arising naturally and unobtrusively from the place where my characters stood.

Every story, remembered or made-up, takes place somewhere. Where it takes place affects what takes place, deeply, profoundly, deeply, indelibly. Characters, both fictional and nonfictional, are deeply affected by where they are and where they’ve come from. Images, characters, and whole plots grow out of the soil they take root in.

Regional writing, writing deeply rooted in place, sometimes gets a bad rap. Regional writing is only about that region, so the thinking goes. It’s not universal. (If this reminds you of the equally popular notion that writing about women is only about women, and writing about people of color is only about people of color, while writing about white men is universal — it should.)

If William Blake could “see a World in a Grain of Sand,” writers can find a whole world in a particular place, and readers can learn more about their world from following a writer’s words into places they’ve never been.

For another take on where imagery comes from, check out my earlier blog post “Grow Your Images.”

Trav on path

The path to Moshup’s Beach is a lot longer and wider than I remembered. That’s my sidekick, Travvy, waiting for me to put the camera away and keep walking.

Moshup's Beach

Once I realized how rocky the beach was, it was easier to hear what Shannon and Jackie were saying as they picked their way over the rocks.

Some Blogs I Like

My m/other blog, my first blog, From the Seasonally Occupied Territories, is read mostly by non-bloggers. Soon after I launched this blog last winter, it started attracting followers who had blogs of their own. Before the end of its second month, Write Through It was Freshly Pressed — featured in WordPress’s ongoing “best of WordPress” feature.

Wow.

I tried to check out the blogs of every blogger who followed Write Through It and every blog that was Freshly Pressed. I was quickly overwhelmed. I cut back and cut back and cut back some more. I still subscribe to more blogs than I can keep up with. All I can say is — there’s an awful lot of good stuff out there.

Several bloggers have nominated Write Through It for various blogging awards or otherwise let me know that they like this blog. Thanks especially to creativewriter, Tempest Rose of Nonsense & Shenanigans, and Susan J. Kroupa.

Rather than nominate other bloggers for awards, I’m listing here a few blogs that I like, along with a few words about why I like them. Not only do I read them regularly, they help keep me going — which is one of the things Write Through It is about. This is nowhere close to an exhaustive list, and it won’t be my last list either. Be warned.

In no particular order:

Off the Beaten Path: Hikes, Backpacks, and Travels: Westerner54, aka Cindy, shares her hikes and travels in glorious photographs and commentary. She’s based in Montana and roams through areas where I’ve never been and probably never will go. (Maybe it’s because I live on Martha’s Vineyard, maximum elevation about 350 feet, but I’m awestruck by mountains.) She shares her knowledge of the places, the flora, and fauna, and her love of the places she visits is contagious.

Speaking of place, the blogger behind Cochin Blogger lives in Kerala, India. His photos, vignettes, and occasional book reviews offer an ongoing introduction to another place I’ll probably never get to.

In Across the Great Dividejournalist Charlie Quimby blogs (all too infrequently these days) about volunteering in a homeless shelter’s preschool. His wonderful first novel, Monument Road, was published late last year. Its vividly evoked characters shape and (more often) are shaped by the less-than-hospitable place they live in — western Colorado.

You may notice a theme emerging here. I’m drawn to blogs that pull me into places and lives I don’t live. This is also true of Charlotte Hoather’s blog. Charlotte is a young woman training to be a classical singer at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and aspiring to go on to opera school. She’s got a glorious voice, writes wonderfully, and takes great photos of the places she visits and performers. She recently released a recording of some favorite songs. Of course I bought and downloaded it. It’s excellent.

How to describe Nonsense & Shenanigans? Let’s see: Tempest Rose blogs about daily life, the universe, and being the bipolar (maybe) mother of a young son whose father is in prison. She’s observant, honest, witty, snarky, provocative, and fun. She’s also incredibly prolific. No way I can keep up with her, but I jump into her swift-flowing stream pretty often and always come out refreshed and inspired.

Evelyne Holingue is a French-American writer who blogs about writing, publishing, and traveling, among other things. She’s particularly attentive to the ways cultures and mores combine and collide, a topic that fascinates me too. This is a main theme of her brand-new YA novel, Chronicles from Château Moines, which I’ve just downloaded and started to read. It’s about a California middle-school student who moves to Normandy and has to make a life for himself in a new country and a language he isn’t quite fluent in. Evelyne blogs in both English and French. The French I read slowly and with dictionary at the ready, but it’s one of the attractions of this lively and wonderfully written blog.

And, finally, the Writer Site blog also focuses — surprise, surprise! — on writing, particularly memoir. Blogger Luanne reviews memoirs and is working on one of her own. She blogs about writing, publishing, and other aspects of a writer’s life — and very well too.

 

Make Room

Place matters.

Places help shape the things that happen there.

A classroom doesn’t look like an office doesn’t look like a church. All classrooms (etc.) don’t look alike either. They aim to shape different things. Some work better than others.

Some people can write anywhere, anytime. When you’re stalled or stuck or feeling balky, though, having place on your side can be very helpful. Classrooms, offices, and churches help people focus on whatever they’ve come to do: learn, teach, work, worship, whatever. Your writing place can do likewise.

It doesn’t have to be a separate room with a door that closes, though if you live with other people this might help.

When my workspace is messy, it means things are happening there. That's Travvy, one of my muses, on the left.

When my workspace is messy, it means things are happening there. That’s Travvy, one of my muses, on the left.

It doesn’t have to be a place you use only for writing either. Plenty of good writing happens at kitchen tables. I write in the chair where I also sit to edit or read. When I sit down to write, I light a candle or two. If a candle is burning, it’s writing time.

Particular objects and rituals can help turn ordinary time into writing time, an ordinary place into a writing place. Experiment. Pay attention to all your senses. Candles, incense, music, a favorite glass or cup or mug, a special photo — any or all can help create the place where writing happens.

Actually writing in that place makes the place more conducive to writing. That might be the most important factor of all. So don’t obsess too much about making the place perfect. (Perfectionista is always lurking in the background, waiting for a way to get into your head.) If writing doesn’t happen immediately in your writing place — just write. Write anything. Write the same sentence over and over again. Do it for 10 minutes. Then do it again tomorrow.