Adam Aitken

Creative writer and teacher

Place & Location

Location – notes

Much as a place can elicit the greatest mystery and contemplation, or even dread and anxiety, place prompts story-telling. Location can be the empty white space that demands meaning, and narrative will provide that: in other words location is an essential  starting point or anchor for the narrative’s eventual form, structure, and plot. Place can be an index of the inner soul.

“First sentences are doors to worlds” –  Ursula Le Guin (in La Plante 2007, The Making of a Story, WW Norton and Company, New York, p. 467)

“We gotta go somewhere, find some place.” – Jack Kerouac, On the Road

“Writers of popular works…tend to do well on the concrete side of things: they bounce their characters around from New York to London to Paris and in and out of restaurants and beds and whatnot, but somehow it doesn’t add up to much emotionally. At the other end of the spectrum you have well-meaning beginning writers whose prose is filled with intense emotions and insightful moments of clarity, or epiphanies, but which lack the concrete to make it real. It is only when we marry the two that we get truly great fiction and creative nonfiction. – Alice LaPlante, 2007, The Making of a Story, p. 113

These passages shows how location is moved away from being a set piece grand setting or stage, and became a more integrated picture of character, as we can see in Flaubert’s description of Paris, which was in fact the Paris his heroine imagines. Dickens’ London is more traditional, a miserable place where his characters live.

Flaubert, Madam Bovary (1856)

Paris, more vague than the ocean, glimmered before Emma’s eyes in an atmosphere of vermilion. The many lives that stirred amid this tumult were, however, divided into parts, classed as distinct pictures. Emma perceived only two or three that hid from her all the rest, and in themselves represented all humanity. The world of ambassadors moved over polished floors in drawing rooms lined with mirrors, round oval tables covered with velvet and gold-fringed cloths. There were dresses with trains, deep mysteries, anguish hidden beneath smiles. Then came the society of the duchesses; all were pale; all got up at four o’clock; the women, poor angels, wore English point on their petticoats; and the men, unappreciated geniuses under a frivolous outward seeming, rode horses to death at pleasure parties, spent the summer season at Baden, and towards the forties married heiresses. In the private rooms of restaurants, where one sups after midnight by the light of wax candles, laughed the motley crowd of men of letters and actresses. They were prodigal as kings, full of ideal, ambitious, fantastic frenzy. This was an existence outside that of all others, between heaven and earth, in the midst of storms, having something of the sublime. For the rest of the world it was lost, with no particular place and as if non-existent. The nearer things were, moreover, the more her thoughts turned away from them. All her immediate surroundings, the wearisome country, the middle-class imbeciles, the mediocrity of existence, seemed to her exceptional, a peculiar chance that had caught hold of her, while beyond stretched, as far as eye could see, an immense land of joys and passions. She confused in her desire the sensualities of luxury with the delights of the heart, elegance of manners with delicacy of sentiment. Did not love, like Indian plants, need a special soil, a particular temperature? Signs by moonlight, long embraces, tears flowing over yielded hands, all the fevers of the flesh and the languors of tenderness could not be separated from the balconies of great castles full of indolence, from boudoirs with silken curtains and thick carpets, well-filled flower-stands, a bed on a raised dias, nor from the flashing of precious stones and the shoulder-knots of liveries.

Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit (1857)


IT WAS A SUNDAY evening in London, gloomy, close, and stale. Maddening church bells of all degrees of dissonance, sharp and flat, cracked and clear, fast and slow, made the brickand-mortar echoes hideous. Melancholy streets, in a penitential garb of soot, steeped the souls of the people who were condemned to look at them out of windows, in dire despondency.

In every thoroughfare, up almost every alley, and down almost every turning, some doleful bell was throbbing, jerking, tolling, as if the Plague were in the city and the dead-carts were going round. Everything was bolted and barred that could by possibility furnish relief to an overworked people. No pictures, no unfamiliar animals, no rare plants or flowers, no natural or artificial wonders of the ancient world—all taboo with that enlightened strictness, that the ugly South Sea gods in the British Museum might have supposed themselves at home again. Nothing to see but streets, streets, streets. Nothing to breathe but streets, streets, streets. Nothing to change the brooding mind, or raise it up. Nothing for the spent toiler to do, but to compare the monotony of his seventh day with the monotony  of his six days, think what a weary life he led, and make the best of it—or the worst, according to the probabilities.

At such a happy time, so propitious to the interests of religion and morality, Mr Arthur Clennam, newly arrived from Marseilles by way of Dover, and by Dover coach the Blueeyed Maid, sat in the window of a coffee-house on Ludgate Hill.

Ernest Hemingway, Old Man and the Sea

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. In the first forty days a boy had been with him. But after forty days without a fish the boy’s parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky and the boy had gone at their orders in another boat which caught three good fish the first week. It made the boy sad to see the old man come in each day with his skiff empty and he always went down to help him carry either the coiled lines or the gaff and harpoon and the sail that was furled around the mast. The sail was patched with flour sacks and, furled; it looked like the flag of permanent defeat.

The old man was thin and gaunt with deep wrinkles in the back of his neck. The brown blotches of the benevolent skin cancer the sun brings from its reflection on the tropic sea were on his cheeks. The blotches ran well down the sides of his face and his hands had the deep-creased scars from handling heavy fish on the cords. But none of these scars were fresh. They were as old as erosions in a fishless desert.

Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated.

McCarthy  Pretty horse quote
Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses, p. 59

McCarthy’s wild west isn’t hard to recognise. We’ve all seen westerns. It’s barren, windswept, and seemingly empty. What is special about his wild west is its metaphysical weight. Is it Paradise or Hell, or both? Is it friendly or hostile? As John Grady says “You can’t tell what’s in a country like that till you’re down there in it”. The characters must live that location for location to have any meaning, and the location will make or break the body and spirit of the characters.

But hardly anyone reads the world with such metaphysical intensity, where everything is relevant and meaningful. Consider the popularity of “commercial realist fiction”, like John Le Carré’s Smiley’s People:

Smiley arrived in Hamburg in mid morning and took the airport bus to the city centre. Fog lingered and the day was very cold.  In the Station Square, after repeated rejections, he found an old, thin terminus hotel with a lift licensed for three persons at a time. He signed in as Standfast, then walked as far as a car-rental agency, where he hired a small Opel which he parked in an underground garage that played softened Beethoven out of loudspeakers.

James Wood (How Fiction Works, p 175) quotes this to show how commercial realism announces its own grammar of conventions – a ‘clever coffin of dead conventions’. Too harsh I feel, but genre  conventions must act as limits on a writer’s approach to creating fictional locations. For example, if you were to create a  realist story set in a Sydney inner city suburb like Chippendale in 2010, it might be necessary to adhere to the model of the ‘Real Chippendale’, as readers who know the area might recognise it with some pleasure. On the other hand, to invent an olive grove situated in the middle of a Chippendale would stretch credibility, and readers looking for realism would complain.

Realism is a form of mimetic description, and much writing is dominated by this convention – that a piece of fictional writing needs to give an illusion of reality, that locations resemble real ones and which are populated by characters who look like us and have minds that suggest a psychological coherence. Yet all writing is an effect of conventions, and there is no reason that a character need resemble any real person, or that a location be based on a real place.

At the other end of the scale are the purely imaged places of genre fiction – for example, let’s invent a place called Chippingwood, in a city called Darlingtown. If we were writing fantasy, we could include a pub frequented with hobbits – call it the Rose of Hobbiton. If we were writing “magical realism”, we could have a house that has been burned down and “miraculously” rebuilds itself in a night. We could create a church in which the ghosts of colonial ancestors magically appear to sing mass, or a park where original members of the Cadigal tribe are heard singing and dancing a corroboree.

If it was a sci-fi story, the pub would be filled with strange non-human creatures, the atmosphere would be over 40 percent neon gas, and the a day would last ten hours, with ten hours in the day.

Good fiction locations require appropriate atmosphere. If it were a detective novel in the style of Raymond Chandler, Chippingwood might have a rather menacing atmosphere, and if we were basing our story on the real Chippendale, we would tend to take all the underworld features we could find and amplify them: garbage dumps, syringes, rain, ice on the streets, unlit alleys etc.

If were writing a children’s story, it might be better to imagine Chippendale as a place suited children’s adventures, and depending on the age of the reader, scary elements might have to be muted.

Exotic places have always attracted readers, and whether writers describe these places realistically is beside the point. To be exotic is to be out of the ordinary, and therefore interesting. From Marco Polo’s descriptions of a one eyed monsters in Asia, to the Romantics’ descriptions of castles in Transylvania, the exotic location is a good place to start a story. Graham Greene exploited Vietnam, Africa, and the Caribbean in his novels. In Greene’s The Quiet American, Saigon becomes the principle location in which a murder mystery takes place.  Greene was stationed there as a foreign correspondent in the early ’50s, where he got to know the models for his characters: CIA agents, Communists, bar-girls, politicians, priests, French Foreign Legionnaires and police detectives, and other journalists.

Clearly, location and character are dependent on each other. To know a location is also to know its residents. To walk into someone’s room and recognise the owner through the objects therein is a similar to reading about a place and having some idea of what takes place there. Places are accreted with mythology, history, and poetic association.

For some writers, it is important to know a lot about a location, and to live there if possible, at least to do research into it. Mark Twain made a fortune out of his home town Hannibal, Missouri, a port town on the Mississippi River. Hannibal served as the inspiration for the fictional town of St. Petersburg in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The great detective fiction of James Elroy has often been set in Los Angeles, where Elroy grew up.

 Real places can also play a part in more experimental works. James Joyce’s Ulysses includes many locations that existed in Dublin during the 20s, and the story features the day of its hero Bloom. The plot is loosely based on Homer’s Odyssey.

Writers of detective fiction might read crime scene reports, forensics text books, and histories of the Mafia. To write about guns, it helps to hang out at firing ranges, fire off a few, or go hunting. For sci-fi writers research will require immense amounts of reading of other sci-fi writing, texts on astronomy, chemistry, and perhaps biology, though nothing at a human scale should limit the imagination.

In my memoir 100 Letters Home I have tried to make Bangkok something of my own, and while I have lived there for extended periods, I have searched out and collected as much as I could that’s written about the place, going back to 17th century traveller’s accounts. I have spent hours reading old copies of the Bangkok Post. Widening my location, I have also read old newspapers from Singapore and Hong Kong. I have been assisted by my own father’s correspondence, which he sent from Bangkok to his mother in the late 50s.

Some writers become literary custodians of a territory: Tim Winton has Western Australia. Annie Proulx does Texas, Wyoming and Nova Scotia. Proulx has said she’s written about places even the locals hate (Bookslut, An Interview with Annie Proulx. You could say that the more marginal a place, the better, but good writing never treats anywhere as “marginal”.

Finding good locations need not require any travel at all. Some writers make a limited location their whole life’s attention, and are able to defamiliarise it. In poetry Cavafy never left Alexandria, because the world and the people he was interested in – the underworld of sex, bars, open-air cafes , his community – were there already.

Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way begins with the narrator’s childhood memories of his bedroom, the view of a church from the house in a provincial French town. Pages are devoted to describing the furnishings, the times of day, smells, sounds, fabrics, teacups and the principle occupants. Such a project reconstructs past time through memory fragments recollected and reassembled so that the effect is a coherent place, which is perfectly believable despite what we know about the unreliability of memory. Proust’s project is re-materialises memory, and reconstitutes the past as a narrative text. By re-tracing memory, dead lives and places are resurrected.

It is essential to any description of a location that things happen there, or that when we enter a fictional forest, we expect something exciting, interesting, or dreadful, or unsettling to happen. Places become projections of our desires, fears and anxieties, indeed dreamscapes are the surreal projections of the sub-conscious mind. The places which are uncanny, ghostly, or haunting offer limitless story-telling possibilities, and it is no surprise that fairy-tales and ghost stories continue to be popular, as they offer a way for human beings to come to grips with our fear of the primitive. Fairy tales often tell of people wandering away from the known space, into the unknown. So to enable the sense of the uncanny, it is necessary to have the familiar and the unfamiliar in the same story. The Odyssey is about an exiled nobleman lost in the wilderness, and the whole plot is designed to get him home again, back to wife and family, good food and shelter.

Location changes characters, makes them heroes or turns them into tragic figures. In horror fantasy, the haunted place itself becomes the malevolent character, as is the hotel in Kubrick’s movie, The Shining. The place is so powerful as to send a normal suburban family raving mad. The hotel is itself seems to possess an evil intelligence which is inescapable.

Other places become haunted projections of nostalgic longing, especially decayed towns that have outlived their glory days. Writers may use a decayed setting as a starting point for a historical narrative. Much of Sebald’s fiction works like this, with a narrator travelling to specific sites where chance meetings or a specific object or structure in the landscape will prompt feelings of foreboding  (the uncanny) or a hypersensitive state of receptivity, which will then prompt long reminiscences:

Sebald Rings of Saturn Quote
W.G. Sebald, from The Rings of Saturn

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