Day 5: the Aquarium of Place

Randi and I spent the weekend in Bloomington, Indiana.  Although I was born in Ohio, I’ve never spent much time in the Midwest, and I’m intrigued by the people here.  I’m not sure if these are Midwestern traits, but here are things I’ve noticed so far:

  1. Although a friendly city, when I talk to strangers, it confuses them.   Evidence:  Yesterday, in a (very crowded) coffee shop, I watched as two youngish men looked for a place to sit.  I was already packing my bags and I waved to them.  “You can have this spot,” I said.  They looked at me, confused by my waving.  “They look like they are leaving,” one said to the other.  And then they walked away.
  1. When people hand you something, they drop it into your palm. Evidence: Twice now, when receiving change for a twenty, the clerk has handed me the bills then dropped the coins into my hands.  (Think two-inch drop here).  Both times, the coins then rolled form my hand onto the countertop.
  1. On a game today, everyone wears the same red “Indiana University” t-shirts/sweaters/jackets.  With no variations on the theme.  Same bright red with white block letters scrawled over the chest. Evidence: Today, during lunch, we were the only people in the restaurant not wearing said apparel.
  1. Even though its cold as hell out here (35 degrees last time I checked), people don’t look cold.  Evidence:  Me, worried, to Randi: “If they aren’t acting like they’re cold, then this must not be very cold for them.”

These observations have gotten me thinking about the way characters/people are a product of the places where they live or visit or go.  Often people think about setting as something separate from people.  Setting as backdrop or as prop or a blue screen that can be interchanged with any image.  Instead, perhaps think of setting as a large aquarium.  If you put a creature in an aquarium, it behaves in a certain way because the environment is acting on it all the time.  Plants move because of the shifting water.  Bubbles float to the surface.  Fish sometimes hover, sometimes shift in and out of holes, or they swim in circles, sometimes alone or sometimes in crowded schools.  When we look into an aquarium, we rarely pay attention to the water, but without realizing it, we notice the way the water affects everything else. The setting/place of our writing, therefore, should not be something kept to the background, but should be an intrinsic part of the whole scene.  It should be reflected in and by every character in some way: not just the way they look and act, but also through the things that they notice and remember.

Here, for instance, is a passage from Annie Proulx’s Shipping NewsNotice how characters and place work together to create story:

Suddenly he could see his father, see the trail of ground cherry husks leading from the garden around the edge of the lawn where he walked while he ate them. The man had a passion for fruit. Quoyle remembered purple-brown seckle pears the size and shape of figs, his father taking the meat off with pecking bites, the smell of fruit in their house, litter of cores and peels in the ashtrays, the grape cluster skeletons, peach stones like hens’ brains on the windowsill, the glove of banana peel on the car dashboard. In the sawdust on the basement workbench galaxies of seeds and pits, cherry stones, long white date pits like spaceships. . . . The hollowed grapefruit skullcaps, cracked globes of tangerine peel.

Today, perhaps spend some time thinking about place. Where is this story/novel/essay/poem taking place?  Where is your character/narrator/speaker from? How do these two things intersect?  How do they create each other?  What do people do there?  What is the weather like, and how does the temperature affect their daily life?  Start with a brainstorm about a specific location and let it go into details about as many different people as you can imagine.  See how those details can add texture, tension, and meaning to your existing work.

4 thoughts on “Day 5: the Aquarium of Place

  1. Thank you for the post. I am enjoying this! I’ve spent time in Bloomington as well. 35 degrees is actually not that bad. 🙂 The other behaviors you mention seem strange to me too!

    • Hi Anne,

      Glad you are enjoying the March. I am, too. It’s a big more difficult when traveling (I’m in the airport now), but I liked the excuse to settle into a coffee shop like a local. Also, I was worried that someone would tell me 35 degrees was not that bad…. Alas!

      thanks for the comment,

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