Being Here: How Writers Create Place

This summer, I’m teaching Reading Literature during one of Virginia Commonwealth University’s summer sessions. My class is themed around Speculative Literature, my favorite genre. Speculative literature is an umbrella term encompassing genres such as Science Fiction, Fantasy, Climate Fiction, Horror, Cyberpunk, Utopia, Dystopia, Apocalyptic, and Post-apocalyptic. I like the way Speculative Literature examines power, social roles, and methods of governance. I really love to see how YA writers take up this umbrella genre.

Writers of Speculative Fiction need to have strong senses of place. They are, after all, engaging with elements–like magic or time travel– that do not exist in our own reality. To craft a credible world, one that draws a reader in, these writers have to create places that feel real.

These past few weeks, an audible edition of Leigh Bardugo’s YA fantasy novel King of Scars has accompanied me on my walks to class. As I’m listening to King of Scars, I have also spent a lot of time talking during my class about the role of place within the novels I assigned. That conversation has spilled over to my King of Scars listening experience—I am struck by Bardugo’s sense of place. Her fictional land of Ravka feels as real as the classroom I teach in five times a week. For Nikolai Lansov, one of the novel’s principal characters, the kingdom of Ravka is a “drowning man” in need of rescue, but one that threatens to drown the rescuer too. It’s a line regarding place that is staying with me, making me consider the actions of the characters in King of Scars differently.

            Bardugo’s worldbuilding raises some good discussion questions about place useful to readers and writers alike.

How is it that authors make these worlds believable? What anchors us as readers within the story? How do authors use literary devices to generate understandings of place?

To answer these questions, I want to look at some of Bardugo’s line where she describes a character named Dima walking towards a barn.

She writes:

“The geese honked and rustled in their shed, riled by the weather or Dima’s nervous footsteps as he passed. Ahead, he saw the big wooden barn doors swaying open and shut as if the building was sighing, as if the doorway was a mouth that might suck him in with a single breath. He liked the barn in the day, when sunlight fell through the slats of the roof and everything was hay smells, Gerasim’s snorting, Mathilde’s disapproving moo. But at night, the barn became a hollow shell, an empty place waiting for some terrible creature to fill it—some cunning thing that might let the doors blow open to lure a foolish boy outside. Because Dima knew he had closed those doors. He felt certain of it, and he could not help but think of Pyotr’s malenchki, little ghosts hunting for a soul to steal. “

We must always keep in mind that descriptions are not value-neutral in a story. Instead, descriptions are manifestations of a world, culture, or a character’s point of view.

Bardugo uses the action of walking to the barn to build a sense of place and she accomplishes this through staying close to how Dima is experiencing his trek.  The barn is a “sighing…mouth,” an act that threatens to devour Dima. We can feel the tension, the unease, through the specific details she offers: “Mathilde’s disapproving moo” doors that are “swaying open and shut.” Her writing engages multiple senses which further helps develop the sense of place.

As readers, we also glean knowledge about the larger world. Dima’s mind wanders to the possibility of a “cunning thing,” a supernatural entity that might be lurking in the shadows. A sentence later, Dima thinks of a creature from a local folktale, the “malenchki.” We don’t need to know a deep history of these “ghosts hunting for souls to steal,” but the presence of a such creatures tells us something about Dima’s society. These details sharpen sense of place, nodding to the way stories and histories inform how people interact with the natural and built environments.

These details—the presence of local lore, diction, the marrying of action to the scene—help generate a believable and compelling sense of place.

So for my writer friends, let’s do our own exercise to hone place in our own work.

Head to a place you frequent with a notebook or laptop in hand. (I think it is sometimes best to go to places you spend a lot of time in—their nuances and peculiarities have a way of becoming invisible through constant exposure. Let’s rediscover what makes this place work.)

Find somewhere to sit. Write what you see. How do people act in this space? How do they interact with each other? How is that relate to your location? What sounds are present? Smells? What kind of light is present? What objects are around? Are they decorative, functional, a combination of both?

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