When the Place is New to You
Sometime in early pandemic (2020? 2021? Who the hell knows!) my buddy Margaret Wilkerson Sexton asked me for some thoughts on writing about place for a class she was teaching. I had recently published a novel about New Orleans, a place where I live but am not from. As a counterpoint, Margaret is from New Orleans and has written (brilliantly) about New Orleans in her novels, but does not live here anymore and hasn’t for a long time. So my response to her was written mainly from the perspective of a person who is writing about a city I have a new (or minimal) relationship with, although I think there are lessons we can take from it, no matter our angle.
Anyway, I’ve meant to post my response to her forever, so here it is:
You have a kind of relationship with a place if you’re going to write about it. Even if you’re not from there, there’s a reason for you giving it all that love and attention. It’s part of your job to get to know it better, deeper. People often talk about place as a character in a book, and I don’t think place is the same thing as an actual living character. I think what they mean to say is: Place is just as important as character. It deserves that same kind of focus.
I cannot stress this enough: do not rely on google maps/earth for your research if you can help it. If it’s available to you, go out there and see it for yourself. Walk everywhere and also, walk at different times of day, too, to see how things move differently, how things are lit up differently. For example, I have distinct feelings about places in my neighborhood early in the morning versus at sunset; I notice different things. Even just that a car might not be parked in front of a building gives me a new perspective on the way a street looks. Walk the streets as you would, and notice everything through your eyes, and then walk the streets as your character would, and notice things through their eyes. Eventually you will walk your way into a groove of understanding the city in a new manner.
Next, I would think about the places that are not on the traditional tourist maps. Perhaps get recommendations of places to go from people who have lived in the city a long time. Places that were special to them. I always think about how Sarah Broom decided to write The Yellow House in part because she saw a map of New Orleans and where she grew up wasn’t even on it! So much that is important lives outside the boundaries of traditional or popular documentation.
I would listen to local radio stations, watch local news, sit in dive bars and eavesdrop on conversation. Listen to the way people speak. Turns of phrases. Accept that you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about right away and absorb the communications of others.
I would also simply ask for help. For All This Could Be Yours, I queried my friends who had lived in New Orleans their entire lives and asked them to read my work to make sure I got it right. I remember how Maurice Ruffin nailed me on having a character walk through a basement of a building when there are no basements here.
There are some things that fell through the cracks for me, I must admit. I name-checked a high school that one of my characters went to in the novel, but didn’t bother to talk to anyone who actually went to that high school at that time. I didn’t even look at a picture of it. Perhaps the building might have looked different thirty years ago. Maybe I would have had a different understanding of the character, even just the tiniest one. You never know what kind of detail you can find by following through.
And finally: I would have real conversations with yourself about why it is so important to write about this place that is not your home. Make sure you know your intentions, and why this absolutely has to be the city or town that is the subject of your work. Examine your feelings, your connections with a place, and then use those ideas in your work if you can. Even if you don’t use it directly in your writing, just knowing your reasons behind setting something somewhere will be felt in one way or another.
To write a novel set in New Orleans felt important and risky for me because this is such a complex and beloved place. So many people feel attached to it and have a sense of ownership of it. I needed to honor that. I wanted to do it justice, and I wanted to be able feel confident about the effort I put into it. In the end I will have to live with the book I’ve written. And it’s never a mistake to establish boundaries with yourself about your subject matter.
My update to this in 2022 is I’m once again writing about place, but lots of places, as my new book puts my characters in cities across American. Within that, I’ve got extremely specific locations in my mind, houses, offices, public spaces, some that I’ve visited before, and some that exist solely in my imagination. I’ve already established a working list of places I’ll need to visit in order to complete this book. I’m excited for those trips.
The work never ends — if we want to do a good job. But hopefully we grow from the process.
Wishing you a most productive and thoughtful week.
You are reading Craft Talk, the home of #1000wordsofsummer and also a weekly newsletter about writing from Jami Attenberg. I’m also on twitter and instagram. I try to answer comments as best I can, which are open to paid subscribers. You can subscribe here or give a gift subscription here. (If you are a teacher let me know, and I will give you a free subscription.) Fifty percent of the proceeds will go to various cultural, educational, and social justice organizations in New Orleans (and sometimes elsewhere). This week’s donation once again went to the Direct Relief’s aid for Ukraine.
I like your distinction between location as a character and location just as important as character. I think it plus with the different meanings of the word character, as in, a person, or a vibe.
Your advice confirms my commitment to spend a weeek in Chicago in April to walk the streets and spend time researching for my novel set in Chicago 1928-33. I’ll takeva walking tour Gangsters and Ghosts and another of the Art Deco buildings. You’re from Chicago so please share suggestions. I booked an Airbnb in the west loop. Looking forward to having boots on the ground for research.