This past August, I participated in the When Words Collide Online 2022 Writing Festival. one of Canada’s prime writing festivals in Calgary, Alberta. I was a featured writer, sitting on several panels and conducting presentations and lectures.
My presentation on the role of place in story kicked off the festival.
The role of place in story is a topic close to my heart and one I wrote an entire writing guidebook on: The Ecology of Story: World as Character. In my coaching sessions with writers and in my writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto, I’d observed in the novice writer a need for more effective integration of setting and place in story. All too often, the lack of meaningful integration translated into a lost opportunity to explore the POV character and the story’s theme.
The presentation and following discussion drew from my guidebook Ecology of Story and was also featured in the WWC recorded panel called “What is Eco-Fiction and Why Should We Care?” The presentation overviewed topics covered in the book, such as:
- Place as character & archetype
- Place as metaphor (personification, symbols, allegory)
- Place and first impressions (openings)
- Place and emotion (over time and by POV)
- Place through the senses
- Place as environmental force (including climate change)
We also discussed how characters connect with their environment and I introduced the metaphoric connection between the white pine forests and the Mi’kmaq in Annie Proulx’s Barkskins. Both are exploited by the white settlers, with intentions to subdue and controll:
The Gatineau forest was noisy, echoing with ax blows and the rushing crackle of falling timber, with shouted warnings and orders. The axmen cut the great pines, but only a few in each plot were suitable for squaring. The rest were left to rot on the ground … unwanted trees lay prostrate, severed branches everywhere, heaps of bark and mountains of chips … There were so many trees, what did it matter? Maine men were used to waste—it was usual—but this was beyond anything even they had seen.
In the Penobscot settlement, the trees fell, tracks inched through the forests, only one or two then seven, then webs of trails that over the decades widened into roads. The roads were muddy, sometimes like batter, sometimes thick and clutching until late summer; when they metamorphosed into choking dust so fine it hung in the air long after a horse and carriage passed, settling on the grass as the English people settled on the land … Fields of wheat and hay took the land, these fields enclosed by linked stumps, the root wads of the forest that had once stood there turned on their edges to bar the white man’s cows and sheep.
I concluded the presentation with a writing exercise asking participants to write about the psychology of a place and how they related to it.
Writers attending the presentation / workshop eagerly participated and produced some evocative narrative that contained good metaphor and sensual writing. Here are a few:
Freyja on their high school gym: “I remember rallies and lectures and sweating, running in circles for an hour and a half. The gym stayed the same but the population of people got smaller and smaller over the years. One year a kid hit his head on the wall and went into a coma. Longest seven seconds in my life.”
Roma: “As soon as I get a whiff of old pages in a book, I am reminded of Uncle Leo. The coffee coloured leather jacket he always wore had seen better days and like him, still retained most of its luster. He was the youngest of my dad’s nine siblings, born during a storm and considered a tempestuous child. Our family just didn’t understand his passion.”
Angela: “I stood on the bridge in Moscow. My mother was talking with a friend. She couldn’t believe how lucky we were to be posted here. I looked down at the river. And at the bridge. It would be so easy to just jump over the fence and land in the water. It was a sunny day. The heat was oppressive. I wanted to do it. But I stood still.”
Kylie: “The stuffy air was full of the smell of bodies and heat. The din of laughing and talking, and yelling surrounded me.”
To find out more on how place can add depth and meaning to your writing, see my third writing guide, The Ecology of Story: Place as Character.
The Ecology of Story: World as Character is presented in two parts: Part 1 provides a comprehensive summary of the science of ecology, the study of relationships, and links to useful metaphor; Part 2 discusses world and place in story. Here I discuss how the great writers have successfully integrated place with theme, character and plot to create a multi-layered story with depth and meaning. Part 2 also contains several exercises and detailed case studies.
NINA MUNTEANU is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.