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Writing Thoughts

Place in Fiction: Yoknapatawpha, Port William and Three Pines

By October 24, 2012No Comments
As you may have been able to tell, lately my reading has been confined almost exclusively to mystery novels by Louise Penny featuring her detective, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and the familiar residents of Three Pines, a fictional village just south of Montreal.  At the same time, I’ve been working on yet another edit of the novel that I started writing myself last summer.  I have 82,000 words of a largely coherent story which my incredibly kind and supportive husband claims is quite “polished.”  My novel is also set in a “fictional” place that is really not so fictional at all, and it’s gotten me thinking about the nature of the “fictional” town.
I feel certain that whole dissertations have been written on this topic.  Or if they haven’t, they certainly should be.  But I’m too lazy to find them and read them, so instead I’ll ramble on about it myself.  Why, I find myself wondering, do authors invent fictional places that aren’t really that fictional?  William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County is based on Lafayette County, Mississippi.  Port William, the “fictional” town where Wendell Berry’s novels takes place, is really Port Royal, Kentucky, a town just down the river from Madison.  Louise Penny really lives outside a small village south of Montreal, which must form the basis for Three Pines.  Why not just write about Lafayette County or Port Royal?  Why make up a place that is both real and not real?

Do you know where you are?

The simplest answer is that real places have certain limitations that made-up places don’t.  If you want there to be a grocery store that’s closing down in your town, but there isn’t a grocery store that’s closing down in the actual town in which you’ve set your story, you’re in trouble.  Sure you could plop a failing grocery store down somewhere, but then you’ve already begun the process of fictionalizing a real place.  How far do you take that process before the place you’re writing about has moved so far away from the real place as to become unrecognizable?

There is, of course, the whole question of whether you are always fictionalizing a place when you sit down to write about it.  I have read stories set in places I know fairly intimately and found them unrecognizable.  “That’s not the place I knew,” I think.  And of course, it is not, because the place I knew is fairly unique to me and my own perspective.  As a sociologist, I’d go so far as to ask whether we aren’t all living in fictional places all the time.  My own particular experiences of living in Madison and the stories I tell about it are not the same as my neighbor’s.  Which is the real Madison?

Still, a story is made convincing by its details, and place is an important part of those details.  If I put a large mountain in the middle of New York, my story becomes less convincing (unless I’m writing fantasy or science fiction, which has its own set of rules).  So instead I might create a place called Mt. York, a city much like New York, except there’s a large mountain in the middle.  Or I might just move my story to Montreal, which is a city with a mountain in the middle, though then you’d have to do something about the fact that everyone’s speaking French.
But why not just make up a city that has absolutely no connection to a real place?  Yoknapatawpha County is a made up place, but it is not a complete fantasy.  It has some relation to a real place which meant something to Faulkner.  Why not walk off the map altogether, become god-like in the creation of your very own neighborhood or town or city or country?

The downside of being god

Well, first, being god isn’t easy.  There’s a freedom to making up a place, but it’s also hard work.  You have to keep asking yourself, what do the streets look like?  The buildings?  The countryside?  Are the houses brick or wooden or stucco or something else entirely?  Are there trees, and if so, what kind?  What does the place look like in spring compared to winter?  As you ask yourself these questions, you will probably inevitably fall back upon some real place you know for the answers.  Well, the houses are an architectural mix, like in that neighborhood in Jackson.  The buildings are limestone, like the campus at IU.  The countryside is barren desert, like outside of Tucson.  If you’re using real places anyway, why not make it easy on yourself and use a real place as a kind of working template?
So it’s good to use a real place as a working model for your fictional place because it’s easier, but it’s also more convincing.  In the ultimate manifesto on place in fiction, Eudora Welty tells us that place is what makes a story real for us.  She says that, “Being shown how to locate, to place, any account is what does most toward making us believe it.”  Setting is not just one important detail in a story; it is the most important detail for Welty.  When we can imagine the setting in which a story is taking place, we can imagine ourselves there; the story becomes real through the details of the place.  

It makes sense, then, to borrow heavily from the idiosyncratic details of a real place.  The railroad bridge and the strange way the road curves through a town you’ve driven through.  The view of the Ohio River from a particular hilltop.  The unique feel of a Mississippi crossroads town.  The particular sensations of standing out on an English moor.  Building on these kinds of details from real places helps create a believable story.

But why go back, as an author, to the same place over and over again?  Perhaps that’s the most important question.  Of course, using a real place is easier in some ways than having to invent one out of whole cloth, without some of the disadvantages of being confined by the limits a real place has.  And place is part of what convinces your audience that the story is real.  But why write novel after novel set in the same kind-of-but-not-really-real place?  Why keep going back?

There’s  no escape

Why keep going back?  Well, because you love it.  Because you are obsessed with it.  Because it is a place that you carry with you in some mysterious region of your body, hovering close to your heart but not too far from your gut.  It is the place you dream about.  It may not be the place you call home, but probably it once was, and maybe it always will be.  It is the place from which you cannot escape, and you write about it in order to figure out whether or not you really want to.  
That, I would guess, is why you go back again and again.  If the real place has that kind of hold on you, so will its fictional counterpart.  As a person who’s something of a stayer, this is a compulsion I can understand. Loving a place deeply and passionately is hard to do without becoming aware of the millions of stories that live there, waiting to be told.  It is the power and complexity of those stories that draw you in, again and again.

Also, eventually, you can draw cool maps like the ones above, which are of the fictional places of Yoknapatawpha County and Port William.

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