Sense of place – verisimilitude, remember? – has been a really important thing in my development as a writer. A lot of my writing, especially my poetry, has been about capturing a single moment as accurately as I can, even if it isn’t a moment that actually happened.
She’s Charles Bukowski in a negligee but Bukowski is punishing you; Lana still hopes you’ll find her on that revolving bed overlooking Topanga Canyon. She’s been crying for days and her eyeliner has run onto the pink satin, but she’s got fresh lipstick on, a Hollywood smile ready for the lights.
A house we built, or family did. Out of the wood that surrounds us, strong but easily reclaimed by the earth. Deep porch, sheltered by eaves and supported by pillars smooth with the touch of many loving hands. Four steps down, grass.
The grass gradually gives way to gravel and sand, the lapping of water. On that stony shore, you can stand and see for days. There’s an island out there – it’s hidden but waiting. Our boat is near; small but more than able for a storm or two. We painted her red and called her Jenny.
Climb back up the worn steps and pass the swing, drifting gently in the lovely, lonely light. Inside is the smell of woodsmoke, bread and the warm old blankets we’ll drag around our shoulders tonight as we search the sky for icy stars.
The two books I can identify as formative in my childhood are A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett and The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge. Both have a richness to their description of rooms and things that has stayed with me in all the years since.
Do you wonder that she felt sure she had not come back to earth? This is what she saw. In the grate there was a glowing, blazing fire; on the hob was a little brass kettle hissing and boiling; spread upon the floor was a thick, warm crimson rug; before the fire a folding-chair, unfolded, and with cushions on it; by the chair a small folding-table, unfolded, covered with a white cloth, and upon it spread small covered dishes, a cup, a saucer, a teapot; on the bed were new warm coverings and a satin-covered down quilt; at the foot a curious wadded silk robe, a pair of quilted slippers, and some books. The room of her dream seemed changed into fairyland—and it was flooded with warm light, for a bright lamp stood on the table covered with a rosy shade.
A lost piece of my writing history is a fantasy description I wrote of a house when I was probably 11. It was hugely cribbed from similar descriptions in The Little White Horse (and probably overused adjectives like I’d just discovered them) but I can still feel exactly what I was going for.
Later, Harry Potter made me realise that there are ways to make people feel a sense of place from clues, rather than description. Learning about etymology has given me a vast treasure trove of subconscious bread crumbs I can feed my readers, putting a whispered memory into their minds that they can’t quite place but know in their bones.
[Incidentally, J.K. Rowling has said her favourite childhood book was The Little White Horse and I think it shows in her writing, particularly in descriptions of the house common rooms.]
Last year, I read The Furnished Room by O. Henry. It’s the epitome of sense of place; secrets and hints and whispers run through it, alongside glowing description.
A faint light from no particular source mitigated the shadows of the halls. They trod noiselessly upon a stair carpet that its own loom would have forsworn. It seemed to have become vegetable; to have degenerated in that rank, sunless air to lush lichen or spreading moss that grew in patches to the staircase and was viscid under the foot like organic matter.
One by one, as the characters of a cryptograph became explicit, the little signs left by the furnished room’s procession of guests developed a significance. The threadbare space in the rug in front of the dresser told that lovely women had marched in the throng. The tiny fingerprints on the wall spoke of little prisoners trying to feel their way to sun and air. A splattered stain, raying like the shadow of a bursting bomb, witnessed where a hurled glass or bottle had splintered with its contents against the wall. Across the pier glass had been scrawled with a diamond in staggering letters the name Marie.
That last line is pure, pure magic to me. Marie’s presence is still hanging heavily in the room, etched into importance by the hardness of a diamond. A diamond she cared little enough about to use as a way of marking her time, like a prisoner tearing their fingernails on the wall of their cell.
That’s enough of that.