Great idea? Check. Great characters? Check.
Plot? Well … maybe not so great. Maybe there’s a problem in the metaphor and motif department. The characters are just laying there like soggy noodles. Who knows what’s going wrong but everyone has an idea. You get advice and tips from the internet – everything from psychotherapy to taking a shower to CoQ-10. Your friends commiserate, tell you to take a break, write something else. Strangers roll their eyes and tell you to get a real job.
Oh yeah, they’re thinking it. They all do.
Whatever the problem is, the writer is always the last to know.
From literary fiction to sci-fi fantasy, there are two elements that root all storytelling: character, and place. Everything else derives from the dynamic created in the interactions between character and place. Plot, symbols, metaphor, even structure are their offshoots. Think about The Great Gatsby’s green light at the end of the dock. It’s significance – why the end of a dock, why that dock, why a green light – is unquestionably tied to the characters and place.
Place, by the way, is not just household, city, street, farm, planet; it includes historical place, which could be mistakenly interchanged with time. Antebellum America. Here, today. Partition India. Stardate 2760 (as opposed to Stardate 2740). The two cannot be separate and distinct because place without time is unidentifiable and generic. Time without place is meaningless. Joyce’s fragmented stream-of-consciousness tomes are a great example. In superior writing there is no generic, frankly because nothing in life happens without the deep and abiding symbiosis between time and place. Tell me something about Detroit. Detroit when? Gilded Age Detroit? Ford’s Detroit? Post Riot Detroit (which riot – ’43 or ’67? It matters). Take readers to Egypt, but make sure the Egypt described is apt. Don’t mistake Carnarvon’s Egypt for Sadat’s. These are two very different nations.
In the microcosm, the places of home, neighbourhood, region all have very specific ways of acting upon character even when the character isn’t aware of it. But the writer absolutely must be. The custom subdivision built in the sixties, wide of lawn and deep of yard with little or new landscaping and fewer mature trees differs greatly both in appearance and character from the elm-canopied neighbourhood of packed wartime tract housing already in decline or in the process of gentrification. Where the neighbourhood is situated, too, changes everything. In the shadow of industry with stacks belching smoke and filth; in the heart of a cultural pocket; surrounded by low-income housing; on the water; next to a highway. Without the urban beehive, no Willy Loman or Biff could have carried such power as characters. But it was an urban beehive filtered through the lens of Miller’s politics, the family’s relationship with wealth and the loss of wealth, and the Depression. A character’s self-assessment, potential, threats, challenges all arise from what surrounds them. Who constitutes the family, the neighbours and neighbourhood? Professionals? Blue collar labourers? Welfare recipients? A specific cultural group? Are the houses self-owned or rented, or boarding houses crowded with the disenfranchised, the forgotten? How does character communicate with that world, and what does it communicate to character?
The writer brings a personal world-view or agenda to place, as does character; it’s likely they may never truly be discrete so in what ways, then, does the writer’s real world (mis)understanding of place affect and afflict the articulation of fictional place? How are professionals characterized, or the wealthy, or labourers and working class? How are women portrayed? Is it a patriarchal point of view, or post-feminist (and does it matter?). What about race, or difference in the broader lexicon of social exclusion? Is one group villified, and another idealized? Is it even possible to engage in an honest discourse about difference through fiction?
Not all place is bolstered by great historical events. Few of us are ever right in the stew of historical moment; rather, it happens in our peripheral vision. What we’re left with is the personal historical moment. It’s the reality that pushes and pulls us. It’s what surrounds the real plot of our lives, and our characters’ lives.
So when I write about research, I’m really referencing place.
There is one word that must be utterly familiar to any serious writer to achieve meaningful place: archives. Newspaper, national, municipal, library. If you are writing and you have never buried yourself in any archives you’ll find your writing suffering for it. It means your default is the generic and the general. It’s noplace, and if you’re hanging your literary hat on noplace your writing will probably go nowhere. Fast. Only if you’re situating a story in a place you know intimately, in a time frame through which you lived, can you escape the need for a background database. Even so, nobody can recall life all that accurately so a newspaper archive should still be part of the writing process. Again, as mentioned in other posts, the majority of all this backdrop might not necessarily form the story or make it to the written page, but it absolutely informs the narrative as a whole.
If you’re lucky, Google Archive or Ancestry or Paper of Record will have your local paper digitized and accessible. Google Archive, now buried in its main search page, is free although some of the newspapers available in the search results are fee-per-use. Paper of Record is fee-based, as is Ancestry except through libraries. Any public library will have certain newspapers on microfilm; many newspapers now offer free or fee-based access to digitized archives; access to local library or municipal archives is free. All it takes is a phone call to the resident archivist and time, plus costs for copying if needed. Taking notes by hand is the cheap alternative.
What’s happening in your fictionverse can and should be influenced by real-time events. Labour strikes and the Red Menace; the Beatles; free love and AIDS and faith; war; politics and fundamentalism; give a hoot, don’t pollute; grunge; department store closures; restaurants and bars that were everyone’s favourite hangout.
Are you writing about poverty but don’t know what wages were for a particular job, or what people received on welfare, or how much milk or bread cost at the time, or how much someone might spend on booze and cigarettes each week?
Did an historical blizzard shut the region down that year but your characters never seem to have noticed? Did an airline crash ten yards from your character’s neighbourhood? Was there a deep recession at that time? Was it booming? How did the newspapers deal with social issues in your character’s city? Was it the spring when thousands of fish mysteriously died? Who was murdered? Were police corrupt? What kinds of natural events took place during your narrative time frame? Tornado, Storm of the Century, flood, purple loostrife, kudzu?
It’s not just news. It’s street maps and insurance maps and blueprints and old photos. It’s the letters and diaries of local citizens that provide ghostly voices from the past, telling us what people were thinking, how they addressed one another, the quirks and oddities of speech, daily living and habits. It’s the real elements of life. Write characters into a working framework of place where fiction and fact melt seamlessly into your unique fictional world. To do otherwise is like putting a ball in play for a pinball game without paddles and bumpers and kickers and slingshots and holes, then wondering why the game is a failure. Give characters a playfield.
Events don’t pull the story along, it’s the character’s engagement with them. Writers who try to fake their way through can’t produce outstanding fiction; too many readers know better. How can characters relate within a fictional environment if the writer doesn’t provide an accurate, credible, workable, and living place? It’s the very mapwork of fiction. It’s the difference between an ink-sketched here be monsters version of Terra Incognita versus a satellite-accurate topography; the difference between a still photo and a dynamic Streetview perspective; caricature, or Rembrandt.
As human beings we are all formed in the crucible of place, from family to world events. Give your characters the same gift. Place them, in every sense of the word. Set your characters in motion within this world and they will begin to respond. They will come unstuck from the purgatory of noplace and start going somewhere.
God is in the details, and so is great writing.