Place in Fiction

In an essay called “Place in Fiction,” written in 1956, Eudora Welty said, “The truth is, fiction depends for its life on place.”   By that she meant that characters, theme, even plot are made real, believable, by the reality of the setting, however fictitious that place may be.  Citing Faulkner, she notes that some critics view an emphasis on place as “regional,” i.e., unworthy of a universal audience, and responds:  “‘Regional,’ I think, is a careless term, as well as a condescending one, because what it does is fail to differentiate between the localized raw material of life and its outcome as art.  ‘Regional’ is an outsider’s term; it has no meaning for the insider who is doing the writing, because as far as he knows he is simply writing about life.  Jane Austen, Emily Bronte, Thomas Hardy, Cervantes, Turgenev, the authors of the books of the Old Testament, all confined themselves to regions, great or small–but are they regional?  Then who from the start of time has not been so?”

I have consciously considered place in my writing.  In fact, I began my first novel, A Hollow Cupbecause I wanted to preserve its setting–Chapel Hill, NC in the ’50’s and ’60’s–from the assault of modernity that was 2008.  It quickly became apparent that the place I was writing about no longer existed, but it gave the characters and themes a chance to live for as long as my skills would permit.  In The Black Owls the University of Oxford perhaps exceeds Welty’s idea of place in fiction.  It is both the reason for, and the potential victim of, a terrible crime as well as an ancient, wonderful setting for a novel.  My third book, The Kingfishers (due for release next year), could only take place in the Georgetown neighborhoods of Washington, DC.

In my case, place also influences the pace and flow of the novel.  I deliberately select settings where it is possible for the characters to walk rather than ride.  This serves several functions, among them familiarity of place for readers and characters, and a compact stage on which the plot can unfold.  It also allows the reader and writer to act and reflect without the necessity of dealing with an automobile.  If my characters must leave the carefully contrived place that I have made for them, I prefer they do it by boat or train.    

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