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  • jrblackburnsmith

The Places You'll Go!

Physical places can be some of the most evocative pieces of a narrative, connecting reader to the lived experiences of the characters. Place can make the most preposterous story real and engaging. It's the James Bond effect: the more exotic the locale, the more over-the-top the action can be. And place can encompass some of the most beautiful languague and images found in literature. One of my favorite Faulkner novels (I wrote my Master's thesis on it) is Light in August. Even the title captures a sense of place and time and evokes something that stirs in my soul. Of course, I'm not Faulkner. I'd have either come up with The Way the Sun on the Horizon at the End of Summer Casts Such Long Golden Rays or, because I like one-word titles, Bright.

Love, which comes out in December, is set in central Ohio. You might think that setting a story in the place I live would make that evocation easy, but I'm not sure that's true. I found I couldn't devote too much space (okay, word count) to making central Ohio real for people who don't know, so much of that evocation of space ended up in the trash. The other challenge, is the physical, geographic and municipal truths of Columbus didn't always serve the narrative I was creating. I found that much of the story takes place in places that don't exist in real life, but are still evocative of central Ohio.

Writing place in a novel set in a historical period (read Retribution, set in Cleveland, Ohio in 1939, or then new novel I'm working on The Devil's Interlude, set in Reims, France in 1942) is made possible, in part, by the ability to find historical maps from the time period, along with photos or sketches etc. The objective is not a historical replica of what those places looked like, but more a historical representation of what they would have felt like. Again, for me, are they capturing true experiences for the characters who are living through them? (And yes, my characters have lives that started before I dropped in on them and continue after I've left - except the ones that die.) I find the orientation of a map that can connect me to north and south, east and west, and where the sun might be rising or setting as a character walks down the street, and how that might impact them (i.e., is the sun in their eyes? is someone only a silhouette?) makes the narrative more real for me, and thus can be evoked for the reader.

In Forgiveness, I created a place that never existed, and a civil war that never happened, and placed them in a region (the Balkans) and a time (1949) that made them real. The freedom from ever worrying that someone could say 'I know that place and this is wrong' was coupled with the challenge of keeping it real in my head. I could not afford a slippage in the fabric of the space-time continuum of that place. I still had to evoke realness and fill readers senses with truth.

In any version of place, I need it to be real in my mind in order for it to be real in the minds of the reader.

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