Posted by: jeannineatkins | April 11, 2013

Homes and Other Places We Remember

Inspiration often begins for me when someone’s inner life resonates with mine, no matter the variations of time and place. If a setting stirs my curiosity, and actions offer at least an edge of a plot, I read to find out more about what someone did and where she lived. Sometimes we don’t know why we’re drawn, but write to understand the pull, finding buried connections that may not matter to readers, except, perhaps, from traces of feeling left by our search. The details of houses, landscapes, and private drawers or boxes, the places where someone rested her head and put her hands, often give me a framework to work within. Places and old things don’t tell time or have calendars, but we can use them to create a sense of order by asking where someone was when she heard some kind of call to adventure, found hope, or felt her belief in her family, who may be almost all she knows of her world, break.

Setting may a good place for writers to begin because while it doesn’t seem as glamorous as theme, which we can argue about all afternoon, it also seems less threatening. Maybe we can’t always write deep, edgy, fantastical, or funny characters but, hey, we can put down what can be seen. We can let rooms, towns, or woods that haunt our characters haunt us, too, until we understand not so much what they mean, but where they fit in a story. They might begin adventures from fairly ordinary places, such as the wardrobe Lucy finds in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which is stuffed with fur coats. We hear something crunch under her feet – mothballs? – then touch something soft, powdery and cold. Instead of furry coats brushing her face, Lucy feels prickly fir branches. The transformation of the particular lets us believe in the magic, just as the description of the barn that begins chapter three of Charlotte’s Web acts as a portal leading to the animals talking together for the first time. The development of the farm animals as seen by Fern to characters in their own right happens so seamlessly that we blink only when some people call this novel a fantasy. The old barn is a place of refuge as much as The Secret Garden, with its hidden bulbs, overgrown briars, rotting swing, and rugged bluebells, which let two angry children discover love. Childhood sanctuaries and haunts behind sofas, under the stairs, in tree houses or forts may evoke both a sense of safety and traces of fear that foster imagination.

flowers

Beloved places of the past are often a source of inspiration, as they were for C.S. Lewis, whose mother died when he was ten, bringing about a temporary loss of faith and him being sent to a boarding school that he remembered as being worse than his stint as a soldier in World War I. His friend J. R.R. Tolkien moved from his home in South Africa when young, and spent much of his adult life creating new worlds. Even after P.L. Travers moved from Australia to England, she carried an early memory of telling fairy tales to a younger sister when her widowed mother left the house after having announced some sort of plan to jump off a bridge. In some ways P.L. Travers never stopped telling those tales, creating new worlds that fit better than the places her mother chose for her.

As we wonder why a story or place haunts us, we may find a way toward theme. C.S. Lewis wrote, “We do not write to be understood. We write to understand.” What does the main character learn?  What insight about life does she need to understand by the end that she doesn’t know at the beginning? While we want to be able to say somewhere in our process what our book is about, and make sure each chapter if not each scene somehow address that, theme is not our job to state. The right setting may suggest a way.

I’ve been thinking about time, place, and plot as I prepare for the NE-SCBWI conference where I’m leading a workshop called “Nests, Rooms, and Gardens: Using Setting to Structure Fiction.” If you’re interested in more ideas and exercises, I hope you’ll consider coming. The conference is filled but if you’ve signed up for May 3, I understand seats are still available for this workshop. I hope to see some friends!

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Responses

  1. I’ll be there, especially after this rich introduction.

    • I can’t imagine a friendlier face to look out upon!

  2. I wish I could be there–it’s been 8 years since I was last at NESCBWI. That workshop sounds wonderful. Place is first on the list for me as a writer. Without place, there are no characters and without characters, no story.

    I’m teaching the regional novel in midgrade and YA fiction at Hollins this summer, which is my way of teaching students about place for six whole weeks!

    • I wish I could be there! I know Ruth and Lauren will be heading down from my neighborhood for the illustration strand. One day we must be in the same place at the same time.

  3. Oh, I wish I could come to hear you, Jeannine! This essay alone was a treat. Setting is usually one of the very first things that comes to me about a story, and I’ve found that to be as true for historical fantasy as for historical fiction, so I very much appreciate your thoughts on place as portal.

    • That’s fascinating that you found setting opening doors for both realism and fantasy. I wish we could talk, but am so looking forward to reading Chantress very soon. Sending my best pre-pub month wishes!

      • Thank you, Jeannine! I’ve been scarce here because of pressing deadlines, but I wish we could talk, too. Thinking of you and wishing all good things for you!

  4. Jeannine,
    To celebrate two years blogging with a poem a day, I’m giving away a POETRY FRIDAY ANTHOLOGY FOR MIDDLE SCHOOL t-shirt. I love your poem in the anthology and if your like a chance to win the shirt, drop by http://www.poetryforkidsjoy.blogspot.com

    Joy

    • Thank you, Joy, and congratulations on two years of poems!


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