The Role and Importance of Place in Writing and Reading

This is a guest post by author Oscar Patton

Oscar Patton, PhD, lives and writes on the family farm in south Georgia. He is working on the eighth novel in his Satilla County series, all slice-of-life stories inspired by actual events and persons. He says,"I try to find the universal in my region, and I write from history, memory, and imagination. I blur the lines and write in a space both fact and fiction." Oscar enjoys reading, gardening, college football, and brooding in his lounge chair.

When we think of the role of place in fiction, vivid examples spring to mind.  Thomas Hardy in Return of the Native uses the heath as a main player in the drama.  The train station in Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephant” becomes symbol for a couple at a crossroads in their relationship.  In Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat,” four men find themselves adrift in an indifferent universe.

Place is key in poetry and drama too.  Robert Frost’s traveler comes to a fork in his path and pauses before “taking the road less traveled.”  Tom Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie feels trapped in the warehouse where he works and in the tiny apartment he shares with his mother and sister.  The movie version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest shows us in living color the corrosive power of a mental hospital (metaphor for the world?).

Obviously, place has a role in the development of character and theme.  What is the less observed  importance of place for the writer and reader?  Writing about a specific and familiar place makes the writer’s job easier and more enjoyable.  When I go to my computer in the morning, I think of it as returning to Satilla County, a place I know well and love anyway.  I slip into the writing as comfortably as putting on worn jeans and old shoes.  Without exerting much effort, I can locate my characters and move them around as needed.  I know the landscape and the little towns: Hebron, Bethany, Axton, and Gulley Branch.  I know the houses and the roads. I know how long it would take to ride a horse from Axton to Hebron.  I know the Citizen’s bank in Bethany is across the pot-holed street from Denton’s drug store.  I know the location of the cotton gin in Gulley Branch.

I am aided by setting my stories in one place but not restricted.  I import stories from other places and fit them into Satilla County.  The assassination of the saw mill superintendent in Serpent in the Pines occurred in Telfair County.  The murder of children by children in The Sheriff took place in Lowndes County.

For the reader, a strong sense of place enhances verisimilitude.  If the story is solidly set on Peachtree Street in Atlanta, in a ghetto in Chicago, or in a courtroom in Dallas, readers feel they are there and experiencing an actual event.

My advice to writers?   Unless you have the means and time to travel and do the research, write about where you live and create a strong sense of that place.  And, remember this: setting can be so much more than backdrop.

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