Integrate Place in Fiction To Deepen Meaning

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 lack of meaningful use of place in story can result in a lacklustre story, overly vague characterizations and a story that lacks metaphoric depth and relevance.

Nina Munteanu

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.

Boat dock at sunset, Ladner Slough of Fraser River, BC (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

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.

Ecology of Story: Place as Metaphor

Birds deer lake

Birds flying over Deer Lake, BC (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Ray Bradbury once told me that everything in story is metaphor. That is no more apparent than in setting and place, in which a story is embedded and through which characters move and interact. Metaphor is the subtext that provides subtleties in story, subtleties that evoke mood, anticipation, and memorable scenes. Richard Russo says, “to know the rhythms, the textures, the feel of a place is to know more deeply and truly its people.” When you choose your setting, remember that its primary metaphoric role is to help depict theme. This is because place is destiny.

Metaphor provides similarity to two dissimilar things through meaning. In the metaphor “Love danced in her heart” or the simile “his love was like a slow dance”, love is equated with the joy of dance. By providing figurative rather than literal description to something, metaphor invites participation through interpretation.

When I write “John’s office was a prison,” I am efficiently and sparingly suggesting in five words—in what would normally take a paragraph—how John felt about his workplace. The reader would conjure imagery suggested by their knowledge of a prison cell: that John felt trapped, cramped, solitary, stifled, oppressed—even frightened and threatened. Metaphor relies on sub-text knowledge.

This is why metaphor is so powerful and universally relevant: the reader fully participates—the reader brings in relevance through their personal knowledge and experience and this creates the memorable aspect to the scene.

Russo tells us that place is crucial to human destiny and the formation of human personality. “The more specific and individual things become, the more universal they feel,” says Russo. This is not an oxymoron, but an example of the principle of a truism that primarily comes to us in the form of paradox (like all good truisms). Detail provides the color and texture of your story and helps it resonate with a sense of place. This does not necessarily translate into a lot of exposition; but it does require creative choice of words. So, instead of “He took a drag from his cigarette as he drove his sports car along a winding road in the country”; (twenty words) try something like “Vinnie sucked on a Camel as his red Corvette careered the hair-pinned curves of Hell’s Gate.” (seventeen words).

Place Personified

Tree-YellowBirch winter-LR

Old yellow birch tree in Little Rouge woodland (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Personification is powerful metaphor that gives nonhuman things human qualities. It personalizes, energizes and emotionalizes. Place described through personification can illuminate both characters and their environment in compelling ways. By giving an object, place, or animal the qualities of a person, personification provides subtle aspects of mood and links the reader to a cocktail subtext of human feelings and struggles. Personification can connect the reader to “lifeless” objects such as water, soil, rock, the sun, moon, planet, concrete, paper, etc., to map the larger meaning of the story. Putting a character’s feelings into the objects around her—as POV character—creates a subtle but deep connection with the reader: “The darkness embraced her”; “The open-throated roar of the river pulled her near.”

D.H. Lawrence’s creates strong personification of Thomas Hardy’s Egdon Heath in Return of the Native:

…Egdon, whose dark soil was strong and crude and organic as the body of a beast.

In The Handmaid’s Tale—a dystopian tale of oppression and intrigue—Margaret Atwood writes:

There is something subversive about this garden of Serena’s, a sense of buried things bursting upwards, wordlessly, into the light, as if to point, to say: Whatever is silenced will clamour to be heard, though silently … Light pours down upon it from the sun, true, but also heat rises, from the flowers themselves, you can feel it: like holding your hand an inch above an arm, a shoulder. It breathes, in the warmth, breathing itself in.

Martin Nolan’s Still Point creates powerful imagery of a storm aftermath through an abandoned old shed and contrasts its loneliness to the half-wild woods nearby:

A deserted shed by the road, buckling under its roof, kneels into the tall grass. The woods beyond it hide the river … I turn back to the half-wild woods. These trees speak to each other, are wild enough for that. They live together, holding the riverbanks in place.

Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem—set against the backdrop of China’s Cultural Revolution—follows Wenji Ye, disillusioned by the massive environmental deforestation in the labour camps she is sent to work:

Her company wielded hundreds of chain saws like a swarm of steel locusts, and after they passed, only stumps were left. The fallen Dahurian larch, now bereft of branches, was ready to be taken away by tractor. Ye gently caressed the freshly exposed cross section of the felled trunk. She did this often, as though such surfaces were giant wounds, as though she could feel the tree’s pain …

Clearcut gordon valley-BW

Clearcut in Gordon Valley, British Columbia (photo by T.J. Watts)

In Memory of Water, Emmi Itäranta personifies this life-giving substance whose very nature is tightly interwoven with her main character. As companion and harbinger, water is portrayed simultaneously as friend and enemy. As giver and taker of life.

Water is the most versatile of all elements … Water walks with the moon and embraces the earth, and it isn’t afraid to die in fire or live in air. When you step into it, it will be as close as your own skin, but if you hit it too hard, it will shatter you … Death is water’s close companion. The two cannot be separated, and neither can be separated from us, for they are what we are ultimately made of: the versatility of water, and the closeness of death. Water has no beginning and no end, but death has both. Death is both. Sometimes death travels hidden in water, and sometimes water will chase death away, but they go together always, in the world and in us.

Personification of natural things provides the reader with an image they can clearly and emotionally relate to and care about. When a point-of-view character does the describing, we get a powerful and intimate indication of their thoughts and feelings—mainly in how they connect to place (often as symbol). When this happens, place and perception entwine in powerful force.

 

MockUpEcology copyThis article is an excerpt from “The Ecology of Story: World as Character” due in June 2019 by Pixl Press.

 

From Habitats and Trophic Levels to Metaphor and Archetype…

Learn the fundamentals of ecology, insights of world-building, and how to master layering-in of metaphoric connections between setting and character. Ecology of Story: World as Character is the 3rd guidebook in Nina Munteanu’s acclaimed “how to write” series for novice to professional writers.

 

 

Microsoft Word - Three Writing Guides.docx

nina-2014aaa

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” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in 2020.