I grew up on a midwestern farm located between the Wabash and Illinois rivers. An anonymous writer described that vast prairie as follows: “…the gentle wind moved the supple grasses like waves of a green sea under the summer’s sky.” Some are born into the world with a determination to flee their homes; others absorb the wind, the soil, and the flora into their souls. Place is part of my character. It is present in my midwestern accent, work ethic, comfort foods, cousin relationships, colloquialisms, and sense of humor. Place also influences the characters I create.
An example of place as character is St. Mary Mead, a village in a fictional county in southeastern England—that’s where Agatha Christie’s Miss Jane Marple lives. The village is quiet, orderly, and altogether charming, with gardens, shops, and an imposing-looking vicarage. Miss Marple is somewhat of a fussbody, sharply observant and adept at sleuthing. The fussbody part makes her synonymous with the culture of St. Mary Mead.
James Lee Burke writes New Orleans as a character right along with the protagonist in his Dave Robicheaux series: “On the burnt-out end of an August afternoon, following a summer of drought and fish kills and dried-out marshland that was turning to ceramic… (The New Iberia Blues).” Place is in Robicheaux’s blood. A homicide detective, he’s lost three wives (one left him, two died), and is a recovering alcoholic attuned to the mystical world. As Robicheaux drives to a place called Cade, he sees a tree with blue milk of magnesia bottles hung from the branches. Weird? Not really— it is part of an upside-down, spirit-haunted place and the vivid imagery here and in other parts of the novel works to ground Burke’s characters.
Elizabeth George writes the Inspector Thomas Lynley series. Here’s how the author describes Lynley: “He wore Saville Row, Jeremyn Street and the scent of old money like a second skin” (In Pursuit of the Proper Sinner). George teams Lynley with Barbara Havers, who is slovenly, gauche, lower class, but has a good heart. England, with its upper class and common folk, is reflected in these two characters.
In my next novel, Old Sins (to be released August 23), protagonist Maria Pell contemplates a storm: “Without interruption, the wind battered the cottage, shaking its timbers and rattling the shutters. I thought of the fragility of life, and the enormous value of shelter… Faith, in a way, was shelter. I saw myself girded by belief in myself and the universe…” Maria, who has Irish blood in her veins, feels the pull of ancestral ties because she has come to the land where her ancestors once lived.
In Where the River Runs Deep (Handy), old hatreds smolder in a southern town until: “The explosion came in a blinding flash; the earth shook, the terrible sound echoed for several seconds. Flames leapt; thousands of metal fragments lashed the air…” Though a visitor to North Carolina, protagonist Maria Pell absorbs place into her psyche: “There had been a mis en scene—the climate, the ocean, colonial backstory, old resentments. Heat tempted the body like a warm bath, breezes stroked the imagination, and the limpid fog created mystery and a place to hide.”
Place as character is always expressed in film, particularly in western films where there is little separation between the hardscrabble terrain and the men and women who settle there. Film noir creates fatalistic settings for fatalistic characters. Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago also leaps to my mind. Snow. Winter. The hot blood of revolution chugs through a frigid, unyielding landscape. In Writer’s Digest, Donald Maass writes “In great fiction, the setting lives from the very first pages. Such places not only feel extremely real, they are dynamic. They change. They affect the characters in the story. They become metaphors, possibly even actors in the drama.”