Tuesday, November 4, 2014

BEYOND SETTING: PLACE AS CHARACTER

guest post by Susan Marsh

Photo of Miller Lake in the Wind River Mountains
by Susan Marsh

When I started writing this guest blog a few weeks ago, I had no idea how hard it would be: I thought I knew my subject well, since it’s one I have long pondered. There is always more to learn, so I am sharing with you my latest thinking on the subject.

Here are the opening lines of two novels I have written:
"Sunlight touched the cottonwoods, their leaves dark and glossy as if it were the middle of summer." 
and
"Dawn brightened into daylight, revealing miles of rawboned country." 
In both of these sentences I have introduced the main character: the place where the story occurs. We all understand what setting is—the time and place of the story that interweaves with character and plot. But when I speak of Place, I mean more than setting. As I try to understand the difference between place and setting, it helps to recall what setting is supposed to do in a story: to ground the characters and plot, to help the reader visualize what is happening and when, to give metaphorical meaning to the plot. Place does the same, but it abides less authorial manipulation. My story must be true to the place, to wrap itself around the place in an authentic way.

Setting is used to serve the author’s needs; place resists this. It can intervene as I write, the same way my characters do: “Cross that out – I wouldn’t say that,” says a character as I struggle with early-draft dialogue. Place likewise demands to be portrayed on its specific terms.

In my mind, place is larger than setting—both geographically and emotionally. If setting is the era/location of a story, place transcends time, containing a past, present and future. It is the essential spirit of a region in all its wildness: even if it has been turned into strip malls it holds the memory of what once was and could again be. Setting is a device; place has power. Its wild nature comes to inhabit the people who live there just as the people inhabit the place, making us inter-permeable.

It’s a deep level of belonging that I can only describe by an example that may ring true: you are hiking along a familiar trail where you feel at home, and it is late fall when the undergrowth is brown and crispy underfoot, a skiff of snow on north facing slopes above. You love that late season hike, yet part of you anticipates the wildflowers you know will bloom again there in a few months’ time. That knowledge is a manifestation of what I call the ‘interpermeability’ between people and place. It comes only through deep inhabitance.

Place, when rendered lovingly and thoroughly, gives the overall story a certain truth that I can’t find any other way. If a real place is shown well, everything that happens in it seems more realistic to the reader. Real people live in real places that matter to them, and I think the characters of a story have to as well. In writing about the West, it is hard to ignore the place, which so strongly shapes our lives. Wild country and big skies crack us open in a wonderful way, and that is what happens to the characters in my stories.

My focus on place has allowed me to find ways to write less plot-driven and more contemplative scenes. In both my fiction and nonfiction, the main character spends a good amount of time alone in the wilderness where there’s not much opportunity for dialogue or other devices to move the story along. This gives readers a break from the momentum of action scenes, and lets them follow the gentler pace required of solitude in a quiet place.

But how can a place be a character? Characters have a number of purposes in a story: they move the plot forward, interact with each other, influence, persuade or sometimes force one another to react, and they evoke emotions and memories in one another—as well as in the reader. The land where the story happens does the same as it takes on the role of character. The people in the story don’t normally engage in dialogue with a place the way they do with each other, but they certainly interact with it, learning from their intimate experiences and relating to place at a deep emotional level. Over the course of the story, the reader gets to know the place and its unique character, just as the human characters reveal themselves over time.

I often start with the far view of the place, trying to suggest its overall essence in terms of mood and tone, while at the same time trying to make the human characters as compelling as possible. Later in the story, the place asserts itself with more depth, detail, and meaning.

As an example, my novel War Creek was conceived to shed light on the vanishing traditions of the Forest Service, the plight of endangered species, and the grandeur of the national forest just east of North Cascades National Park, a place dear to me on many levels. People who have read the book all comment on the intense evocation of place. It wasn’t something I did consciously; the place lives within me as a writer.

My memoir A Hunger for High Country attempts to evoke a place in a different way. I tell a story of my experiences working as a woman professional in the Forest Service, but I’ve seen the book as a profile of the Yellowstone country as much as it is my story of personal experience and growth.

I’m working on other place-centered stories at the moment, and think that I will never write anything else. I am most interested in the connection between people and the wild earth, a connection that has been with us since the beginning, and one that seems now in danger of being forgotten.

Lynn chimes in...

I read once that setting is where characters are in duel with their difficulties. This is definitely the case in A Hunger for High Country, where the setting both contains and reflects Susan's struggles in being one of the first generation of women to work as a field-going professional in the U.S. Forest Service.

The memoir takes the reader along on Susan's wild ride, and en route you are introduced to grizzly bear biscuits, a coffee mug altered to read "Forest Circus--Department of Aggravation" and a stand of "twisty trunk" aspen that wrap around the author to soothe her in bewildering times. You also learn a hell of a lot about the history of wilderness in these United States, and get a good elbow in the ribs to not take all this amazingness for granted--maybe even do something about preserving it.

Susan's dedication to the wild is embedded in every phrase of the book. This excerpt from the last chapter of the book, reflects her passion:
With each act of service I peel another layer away, coming closer to the core, fueled by the hot fire in the heart that says This Matters. Each time I introduce another person to a favorite untrammeled place or a delicate wildflower, I shine a light on the satisfying depth of experience that accompanies reflective time outdoors. 
-- From A Hunger for High Country, by Susan Marsh.

A little more about Susan...

Born in Seattle, Susan Marsh is a naturalist and award-winning writer now living in Jackson, Wyoming. She has over thirty years’ experience as a wild land steward for the U. S. Forest Service. She was drawn to the wild from an early age, and animals were her primary conduit to this place of beauty and mystery. This loss of the wild and affinity for animals has driven Susan’s lifelong path.

Susan’s books include the novel War Creek (MP Publishing), The Wild Wyoming Range (Laguna Wilderness Press), A Hunger for High Country (Oregon State University Press), Targhee Trails (White Willow), Beyond the Tetons (White Willow) and Stories of the Wild (The Murie Center). Her writing has appeared in Orion, North American Review, Fourth Genre, Talking River Review, Weber Studies, North Dakota Quarterly, and numerous other journals.

Susan received the 2003 Neltje Blanchan Memorial Award, awarded by the Wyoming Arts Council.


9 comments:

  1. Both of my mysteries, set in Wyoming, also begin with a relationship between the lead character and nature. I think that living in Wyoming, with my writing window looking out on Casper Mountain, I can't help but be enveloped in the environment around me. As I did when I moved here, my characters continually re-discover the beauty of Wyoming and it is my hope that readers will experience that and appreciate the open space, the mountains and the changeable seasons as much as I do.

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  2. Re-discovering beauty is what it is all about I think. sm

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  3. More that just a skillful writing technique, I think writing with place as character performs a vital civic and political responsibility. If we are to heal our relationships with our habitats before those habitats shrugs us off for good, we must first reimagine habitat as a capable relationship partner. Maybe then, we can begin to reimagine ourselves and capable relationship partners too. What I love about Susan's work is how the relationships between people and with places feel so real and challenging and hopeful.

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  4. Wow! I understand that difficulty you mention about writing for this blog. I was fortunate in that I was asked early, before people like Susan Marsh raised the bar so high that I'll never be invited back. The following is the best, easiest to understand, description of the role of place I've ever read.

    "If setting is the era/location of a story, place transcends time, containing a past, present and future. It is the essential spirit of a region in all its wildness: even if it has been turned into strip malls it holds the memory of what once was and could again be. Setting is a device; place has power. Its wild nature comes to inhabit the people who live there just as the people inhabit the place, making us inter-permeable."

    As a volunteer, self-trained naturalist who takes folks from Denver out on the prairie and introduces them to pronghorns, coyotes, prairie dogs, rattle snakes, hawks, eagles, falcons and the beauty of the prairie, it's grasses, flowers, skies, spaciousness, I also related to Matt's comments about "healing our relationships with our habitats."

    Thank you Susan Marsh.

    This blog gets better and better with each new writer. Thank you Lynn and Susan.

    art--who is off to Tattered Cover to look for some of Susan's books.

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    1. Art -- you are FAR too modest! Your contribution was wonderful. Glad you enjoyed this post. :)

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    2. The blog gets better with each person we hear from - guest posts AND comments!

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    3. Wonderful post! Just reading it makes me want to go hiking and hang out in nature, which proves the point about the power of place in any writing. I took a class on place and setting once, and the class started out asking us to imagine what our favorite books would be like in a different place. In my case, that would be The Hound of The Baskervilles without the moor. Inconceivable!

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  5. I am not a writer, but an enthusiastic, appreciative reader. Susan's explanation of the role of Place in her writing helps me better understand why some things I read feel so much more rich, real and important to me than others.

    It also helps me be less cynical about the "Power of Place" slogan used as a marketing tool in Jackson, WY. Susan's post inspires good questions about what the Chamber of Commerce really means, and how we can best honor this place.

    Also thanks to Susan for introducing me to this gem of a site, where (apparently) smart, thoughtful writers offer insights that even readers can enjoy. I'll visit again!

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    1. We're thrilled you looked in on us! My non-writer sister reads this blog too. Well, she's family, so she sort of has to :-) She's always remarking that the insights offered apply to much more than just writing--to creativity and life in general.

      Thanks for joining in the conversation and we look forward to hearing from you again. We're all readers here, first and foremost.

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