Nina Romano, “The Importance of a Sense of Place”
I remember being told in a graduate fiction creative writing course by John Dufresne that I use “excruciatingly tangible details of place.” And this is still true in all of my writing. I want to put the reader there. PLACE is super-important in fiction, memoir and poetry. It is where you ground your characters, so the reader has a clear picture of where the action is taking place. And because they are grounded when these character use dialogue they are not just “talking heads” suspended in space.
Place to some extent is synonymous with setting and if it is strong enough can almost portray a character in the work. For instance Jack London’s wilderness (place) is so convincing that it becomes the actual antagonist in his short story, “To Light A fire,” in which the main character dies because he’s out in the wilds and doesn’t know how to properly light a fire. London gives us the setting of the outdoors in severe, frigid, wintry weather, and plenty of snow with night descending while his character is trying to light a fire from a single match to keep from freezing to death.
Place can be a kitchen, the woods, a church, the dining room table, etc. Once you chose the location here’s what happens—let’s say I chose the dining-room table at Thanksgiving. Mood and theme immediately enter our brains as well. Is it a happy time, sad? Perhaps because of a recent death in the family we have the added perspective of grief looming. Crepe is hanging from the mirror over the sideboard. Is the food on the table going to speak to the reader about what kind of family this is, what kind of kinky hang-ups they have?
In reading Jonathan Franzen’s quirky, wonderful novel, The Corrections, we get a scene at the dinner table where Al and Enid and their two little boys Chip and Gary are partaking of a really yucky meal. Enid has served the small children a mound of overcooked rutabaga, liver, and turnip greens, if recollection serves me well. So the older boy Gary eats up everything and pleases the mother, while the younger son goes through all sorts of machinations not to eat, and at first the father helps him by polishing off some of the food on Chip’s plate and then says that if the Chip eats everything he can have dessert. The mother states she has pineapple, the father says that if he eats the dinner he should get something like a cookie. The mother doesn’t budge, the older boy eats the pineapple, and the Dad feels threatened, guilty what-have-you—lots going on in his thoughts as well as the table. I think I got this right—finally the father gives the order that Chip will not have dessert and will not move from the table till he finishes eating. This then creates conflict and tension and many other opportunities for motivation, cause and effect.
Another example of the significance that a scene can play using a strong sense of place is from Amulya Malladi’s The Mango Season. Malladi makes use of place—the heart of the house, in this case an Indian kitchen. It is here where three generations of women, plus a sister-in-law and a cousin are cutting mangoes in order to pickle them, and where a lot of intimate family details are revealed with a quite a bit of cattiness, which displays each characters’ personality, traits, and gives the reader insights into family and its hierarchy.
These are only a few examples of place in fiction. In poetry, what first comes to mind first is the strong sense of place that echo the themes and geography of New England. Maxine Kumin uses features and topographies of her world and in her poetry. In her fourth collection, Up Country, the poems are inspired by her life near the woods and on the farm, and the collection was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Another poet who uses terrain and countryside as background for his poetry is Robert Frost. Yet another is Mary Oliver. But any good poet worth his/her words knows instinctively that the backgrounds, backdrops and backcloths of good poetry are necessary elements of craft to build the poem.
When I write poetry, fiction or nonfiction, the people I use for characters are portrayed in different scenes. Usually images of places come to mind first before I start a first draft. In my poem “The Death of August” the reader knows immediately where the scene is happening. We get the landscape and panorama and a picture is sharply painted. Here are the beginning lines:
Last eventide before Corsican starfall
we watched sunfire slip to its descent
beyond the mountain that is Bonifacio.
In my short story, “The Other Side of the Gates,” the main character Oreste Spano is a prison cook. So naturally we will see him at work cooking in that old kitchen. Here’s the opening of this story.
Oreste Spano struck a match against the Regina Coeli prison's kitchen wall. Lighting a cigarette, he thought of his children. He'd risk anything to see them. When the cigarette burned
down and he felt the heat on his lips, he took three long drags and flicked it upwards. The
cigarette ricocheted off the rusty iron window frame. It glanced off his shoulder, bouncing onto
the floor. Spano crushed it.
The use of solid, concrete objects and characters in a particular surrounding or place can only infuse the writing with force that spells control and the sense that this writer knows where he’s leading me, the reader.
Excerpt from “The Thief”
Thieving always came easy to me, and I enjoyed it. I practiced, raising my skill to an art form, but never realized there was something more important I needed in my life until I walked onto the promenade deck of the Oceana. It was a revelation that shook every fiber of my muscles, but I didn't learn its importance until that day in May, 1988 when I reached the marketplace in Cairo, and stepped into the El Calili souk.
I stopped by the railing as the ship hit some nasty weather. The boat rocked and pitched and my footing was unsure. I had noticed a knockout bookish type with a beard and horn-rimmed glasses at the fire drill earlier. He seemed a little stuffy, and reminded me of someone, but I couldn't place whom. The man was six feet of delicious. I'm a tiny girl, bottle blonde and have been described as a pixie, a word I hate.
From the corner of my eye, I watched him stroll around, and then it happened. He casually bumped into an elderly gentleman and lifted the man's wallet. Now, for sure, I was determined to make his acquaintance.
I pretended not to have seen him, turned abruptly, and crashed him. Fortuitous? Hell, no. Calculated!
"I beg your pardon," he said and introduced himself. "I am Count James Ausberry-Bickerford Contraire."
In my heart I knew he wasn’t a Brit, and no way a count, but my lineage couldn’t even lay claim to being a Jewish-American Princess from New York’s lower eastside.
"Pleased to meet you." I offered my hand. "Marchesa Titi Patagonia,” I said, dreaming up a title and hoping we would hit it off. Our meeting electrified the air like the ensuing storm. He kissed my hand, and with him still holding it, my other hand was on his money clip. Destiny? I left nothing to fate's whimsies.
"My dear," he said.
I laughed at his formality.
"You have a wonderful laugh." He extended his palm for his money clip, and moved his fingers as if to say, Give it back.
"Caught!" Not just me, but him too. I wanted him to think he was dealing with a rank beginner.
"It doesn't appear that you're in need of money." He sounded aloof, but no way off-putting. He gave me a gander and approved.
I was about to hand him back his money clip when I declared, “Sorry, I never restitute stolen goods—it’s contrary to my principles. I’ll treat for coffee. This type of stealing isn't my specialty, but I was dying to try it after observing you at work with that man over there." I pointed to the elderly gentleman, struggling to open the heavy door that led to the game room.
The Count hooked my arm, and his touch registered TILT on my mental pinball machine so much so that I placed my hand on my racing heart.
“Are you unwell?” he asked.
I couldn’t be better, but went mute, thinking maybe romance was also in store for me, not
just a possible business partnership. He escorted me towards the old man.
"You saw me relieve the gentleman of his purse? I had mistakenly assumed that my performance had gone unobserved. An oversight." He bent down with the man's wallet in his hand, straightened and said, "Sir, I believe you dropped this." He then opened the heavy steamer door for all three of us.
Nina Romano earned an M.A. from Adelphi University and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Florida International University. She is the author of three poetry collections and one chapbook: Cooking Lessons from Rock Press, submitted for the Pulitzer Prize, Coffeehouse Meditations, from Kitsune Books, She Wouldn’t Sing at My Wedding, from Bridle Path Press, which she will read from at the 2013 Miami Book Fair, and Prayer in a Summer of Grace
(chapbook),from Flutter Press. Romano has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize. She
co-authored Writing in a Changing World.
Her new poetry collection, Faraway Confections,
is forthcoming from Aldrich Press. Her debut short story collection, The Other Side of the Gates,
is forthcoming in 2014 from Bridle Path Press. More about the author at: www.ninaromano.com