the importance of place in story

Recently, I sent my memoir of childhood to a respected author who is also now a literary agent. Most agents, as you probably know, if you’ve tried to go through that gateway, either don’t answer, of if they do, after some time, and mostly say they aren’t taking on any new clients; or if they look at your manuscript, they say that it doesn’t fit their bill, but they don’t give any feedback. This agent was an exception; she responded promptly to my initial enquiry, and asked me to send the whole ms, which I did. Within two weeks, she answered, and gave me a lot of valuable feedback, though she didn’t agree to take it on, as she felt it wasn’t ready yet for publication. Since then, I’ve revised it YET AGAIN, and am loath to go through the whole process once more, so am just sitting on it, till I am clear about what I want to do with it.

Anyhow, the theme of this post is place in story. One of her comments was that the theme, the emotional core of the story, wasn’t clear; “it’s not about place …” she said. I’ve thought about this, and I wonder if she is right. Can you have a memoir about place, its significance in your life, its specificity, its horrors and its beauties, its witnessing of your struggle? Clearly, to make the place the central character would be difficult to do in an engaging way. I think some writers have done it, though none spring to mind, except perhaps Tim Winton’s Dirt Music; and (I believe) Gerald Murnane’s fiction, which I can’t read (not that I’ve tried for a long time). Of course, there are other characters in these stories, but the place they live in is the dominant theme. I’m sure there are other examples.

I’ve been thinking about this lately; the importance of place in a story. I’ve decided to write my mother’s story as a fictional memoir, using excerpts from her handwritten memoir and some of my own memories and knowledge of her character. In many ways, it’s harder, I think, to fictionalise someone you know in your blood and bones, than it is to make someone up. Of course, any character you make up has elements of people you know, some more, some less. I’ve reached about 10,000 words, and so far, the process has felt a bit mechanical, in that I’ve been taking fragments of her memoir, piecing them together, fleshing them out, and when I go back, adding in shading and detail. But I had a breakthrough yesterday morning, when having a coffee with a good friend and writer. She commented on a print I acquired last year, and finally, when I had a few $$ in the bank, had framed. It hangs on my wall in  a central spot. It is washed out landscape, foreground water, with a fringe of bush on either side, a telegraph pole in the background, and beyond, a faint line which suggests hills. It is all in off-white and brown-black, and lines are minimal, apart from the depths of the bush and their reflection in the water.

It is called This Place We Know. When I saw it, at an exhibition of prints at the Tweed River Art Gallery, I fell in love with it, and had to have it. My friend, who has read my childhood memoir, said that for her, it conveys the essence of my story, of the place I grew up in, in its bareness, emptiness and isolation, its stark beauty.

So when I got home, I wrote an opening paragraph for my mother’s story, and renamed it This Pace You Know. It may be that I move it and don’t open the story with it, but …. it is there.

Here it is:

Your mind is an outback landscape, washed almost white in the glaring summer sun, with bare, flat plains, and a faint line separating the land from the sky. The only vertical marks on this horizontal world are a line of fence posts, trailing off into the distance, a lone tree etched against the bleak sky, and, if you look behind, the straggly trees, dark green-grey-black, curling along the line of the life-giving river, mysterious in its depths and shallows, a presence you cannot see unless you approach it, but you can smell it, and when you are lying still at night, or resting in the afternoon, you can hear it, whispering its ancient song as it wanders through the land, knowing its way, carved out over thousands of years. This is not your country, but you dwell in it, and it is in your blood, your bones, your nerves, and it will never leave you, wherever you live, whatever you do, and when you die, it will always be this place, this place you know.

I”d love to hear your comments, especially about what you think about place in story. Can  a place be the central theme? Do you know of any novels or memoirs that do this?




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9 responses to “the importance of place in story

  1. Definitely a central theme, even a central character …
    Mark Tredennick’s The Blue Plateau: A Landscape Memoir is a beatiful, beautiful book, using the blue mountains as a central character

  2. sorry … beautiful not beatiful

  3. Thank you, Sarah! I’ll look for it.

  4. As reluctant as you may be to revise several times, it’s the thing to do; and even have several other professionals review it. Ernest Hemingway claimed to have revised the ending of Farewell to Arms 39 times “to get the words right.” As for place, I believe place can be of great significance in memoir. Your agent may not have thought place was marketable in your book, but other agents or publishers may. On another item, you’ve taken on a big chore trying to write someone else’s memoir while inserting your own memories, even though you fictionalized the story. Memoir is about you, not someone else. Hang in there and best wishes for every success.

    • Of course, thank you, Wayne, I know the importance of revision; this memoir has been through more lives and name changes than I can count. But there comes a point when you feel you must draw the line, not keep changing it to meet other people’s ideas. The only true motive for revision is to bring out the best in the story, to make it the best it can be. I’m not sure if I’ve reached 39 times, though, and it may have one more revision in it, I just want to let it lie fallow for a while. As for writing my mother’s ‘memoir’, it is a big ask, and I”m not sure if it wil work; sometimes I think it will, sometimes not. It is really a fictionalised biography, but written from her point of view; no different than a novel, except that it is the life of a real woman. Point of view, voice, is all-important, as I find when I read masterpieces like The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, and now, Anna Karenina. To get inside the head of the subject, to think as they would think and speak and feel. Thanks for your encouragment!

  5. Thanks, Wayne, that’s great to know. I will follow up.

  6. Steve capelin

    Nice having coffee with you recently Christina. The book I loved which meets the “place’ criteria ws Barbara Kingsolver’s ‘Prodigal Summer’. Her most recent ‘Flight Behaviour’ also has a very strong location and ‘in the environment’ theme. Place is always there. In the books I’ve loved its been really strong (Foal’s Bread) but the characters nevertheless drive the relationship with the ‘Place’. Was your agent suggesting that your memoir was too much about place or too little? It’s always a balance.

    • Hi, Steve, likewise.

      I haven’t read ‘Prodigal Summer’ it’s a good title. Will look out for it. I agree, place has an important part in much great literature, and it is both an agent and an ‘other’, a presence which all the characters relate to in different ways. I guess there also needs to be a theme that ties it all together, and perhaps that was what the agent was suggesting. I think I’ve done that more clearly in the latest version, which I’ve put on the back burner till I decide what to do with it.

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