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3 Ways to Portray Place on the Page

The Power of Setting

By Noah Lederman

The most skilled authors know drawing upon their settings can add a breath of reality to their imagined story worlds. Here are three unexpected lessons about depicting place on the page.

Sometimes a setting is so central to a story that it’s almost a character unto itself—a fully crafted,
fictional ode to a real-life place. I set out to travel in the footsteps of three accomplished writers, and discovered there’s a lot we can learn from the relationship between writers and location.

Even subtle setting can be powerful.

Robert Louis Stevenson made many visits to Hawaii, which inspired him to write the short story “The Bottle Imp,” about a man facing great power and consequence. The tale might have been just another Faustian sold-one’s-soul-to-the-devil story if not for its novelty location. Stevenson is concise in his description, drawing upon both his surroundings and the history behind them: “Above, the forest ran up into the clouds of rain; below, the black lava fell in cliffs, where the kings of old lay buried.” (Later, in Eight Islands, a collection of Stevenson’s essays focusing on the Big Island and Molokai, he doesn’t hold back from fully presenting his intimate firsthand knowledge of a beauty that had been merely alluded to in his previous work: “The mouths of caves are everywhere; the lava is tunneled with corridors and halls; under houses high on the mountain the sea can be heard throbbing in the bowels of the land.”)

On a clear morning during my visit to Stevenson’s Hawaii, we kayaked across Kealakekua Bay. The guide aimed his paddle at the black cliffs, where lava tubes opened toward the sea. “The ancient Hawaiians buried their kings there,” he said. As I looked on, what must have been the deeper inspiration behind “The Bottle Imp” came to life. The guide explained that it was here at Kealakekua that soldiers tasked with burying their king in the lava tubes were said to have committed suicide afterward in order to keep the burial chamber secret. Hawaiians believed that bones, like Stevenson’s bottle, possessed great powers. The consequence for theft of royal bones was death

While the stray line referencing the buried kings appears casually, it is discovering the beauty of what is untold that makes the story all the more powerful.

Description need not be literal.

While Stevenson approached place with strategic brevity, Haruki Murakami seems almost antagonized by his perennial and much-explored setting of Tokyo. In a 2004 Paris Review interview, Murakami said, “I don’t like Tokyo; it’s so flat, so wide, so vast.” He went on to state that the only reason he had lived in Tokyo was for the anonymity it afforded him. And yet he proves that even disdain can work on the page. In his Tokyo-set Norwegian Wood, Murakami depicts the Shibuya district as dull, writing that protagonist Toru Watanabe’s most exciting moments there are spent “drinking in silence and munching peanuts.”

When I arrived in Shibuya, I had never seen so many people swarm an intersection. This was dull? Murakami’s humdrum account felt as out-of-place as calling Las Vegas “quaint.” Before arriving in Tokyo, my only knowledge of the place had come from reading Murakami. Now, I had a sudden sense that his banal description was intentionally incongruous with reality in order to emphasize his disillusionment with the bustling city.

When Watanabe walks Tokyo with his friend, he says, “We kept walking all over Tokyo in the same undirected way … just walking and walking with no destination in mind.” As I followed in their footsteps, my head cleared and I was able to breathe in the stifling city. To capture a kinetic metropolis like Tokyo with anything more than paradoxical language would feel contrived or never-ending.

Spaces can be symbolic.

Sometimes setting can impact fiction in a far more direct fashion. Kyung-sook Shin is the first female and the first South Korean author to win the Man Asia Literary Prize. In her novels, setting is often clearly defined, especially in her translated work, The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness. While readers can get a strong sense of factory conditions and squalid living conditions, the places central to her story are hard to fully comprehend until you stand in the South Korean capital.

In a 2012 Newsweek article, Shin wrote, “I love Seoul … because at the heart of the city there are mountains.” When I met her at a cafe near the base of Bukhansan, she explained how the mountains are paramount to her writing. “While I hike up the mountain, I can organize my thoughts. On the trails, sometimes, I get an idea for a novel.” Other times the mountains offer Shin a way to move a story forward.

In her novel I’ll Be Right There, when the Korean government puts down student protests with lethal violence and leaders of the youth movement have disappeared, Shin’s protagonist, Yoon, looks across the city at a tower on the mountain and says, “It reassured me to know that there was something that stayed in one place and did not change, even if it was just a tower.” Later in the book, when Yoon tries to make sense of the chaos clutching her city, she heads to the royal pavilion—while there, she feels the presence of the mountains.

During my time in Seoul, as tourists swarmed the Gyeongbokgung Palace and herded up the tower, I removed myself from the crowd and opted for a high pavilion where, like Yoon, I could gaze out upon the tower’s static majesty. From there, Shin’s inspiration was palpable.

Deeper in I’ll Be Right There, Shin writes, “Architects have to know everything there is to know about a space. You have to know its past and its present. That way you can build its future.” Writers are the architects of story. Just as a room in a building remains unoccupied until a structure is fully established, characters cannot securely occupy a story before the author understands everything about its space. Even if setting, in the end, winds up deconstructed on the page, place and time are the building blocks to all the other elements. If a reader looks deep enough, the foundation remains, often presented as little winks to the readers who journey to a non-fantastical place.

Noah Lederman writes the travel blog Somewhere or Bust (somewhereorbust.com). His writing has appeared in The Economist, Boston Globe, Miami Herald and elsewhere, and he is completing a memoir about the year he spent surfing the world. He does all that social media stuff @SomewhereOrBust.

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