Place in Fiction: Where are we, anyway?

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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 place in fiction and the nature of the fictional place.

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, at great length.  I started writing one post on this topic, and realized I had entirely too much to say.  So in Part 1, I’m considering the difference between real places and made up places.

Why, I find myself wondering, do authors invent fictional places that aren’t really that fictional?  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?

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?

This brings up the whole question as to 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 of the time.  One of my advisees is taking a course called Self and Social Interaction which focuses quite heavily on the social construction of reality.  In my office the other day, he explained to me that when he was little, he imagined that he was living in an imaginary world he’d made up, and that everything in it was just the product of his own imagination.  After taking this class and reading some of the theorists, he had come to the conclusion that in many ways, that childhood fantasy was actually the truth.  We experience everything around us through our own unique filter made up of our memories, our biases, our knowledge (or lack of it), our values and our own actual sense organs, which are flawed instruments, to say the least.  So the world I’m living in actually is unique to me.

color wheel

Small differences you might easily dismiss.  I have an astigmatism in one eye and I’m near-sighted, so when I look at objects at a distance, they look very differently than they do to someone with perfect vision.  But culture also impacts how you perceive the place in which you live.  The Basa people of Liberia have only two colors: ziza, which encompasses everything that we would call purple, green or blue; and hui which includes red, orange and yellow.  In the world I’m living in, I’m sitting on a red couch writing this.  I experience the couch as red with all the particular meanings that has for me.  But if a Basa person were sitting on my couch, they’d be sitting on a hui couch.  And though my yellow mug would be a different color to me, to the Basa, it would be the same color as the couch.  We are living in two different worlds.

When you sit down to tell a story about a place, you are describing the reality of that particular place as you experience it, which may be very different from how someone else experiences it.  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?

When I walk around Madison every day, then, the Madison I am walking around is not exactly the same Madison in which my husband strolls about.  When I start to tell a story about Madison, I’ll be telling a story about my Madison, and mostly not my husband’s Madison.  But in the story-telling, I will get either much farther away from the “real” Madison, or much closer to it, or a little bit of both, depending on your own particular perspective.

You could begin right now, at this very moment, to describe the place in which you live, and even if you went at it for the rest of your lifetime, you would never achieve a complete and totally accurate description.  Let’s start with my house.  I could say it’s a green, brick, Madison double.  And then I could add that it has a front porch.  The front porch is painted black, but the paint is peeling.  And I could just say that the paint is peeling, but you wouldn’t know exactly how and where the paint is peeling, and getting all that down would take a couple of days.  And then I’ve told you it’s green, but I haven’t told you exactly what color green it is.  And if we’re honest, it’s not exactly the same green everywhere.  So that might take about a week.  And so far I haven’t even gotten to the inside of the house at all.  And in those two weeks I’ve spent describing the porch and the color of the house, both of those things have already changed.

All stories are partial.  We pick and choose what we tell.  I will describe the inside of the restaurant, but not the items on the menu.  I will tell you about the car accident I had, but not how fast I was going when it happened.  I’ll include the fact that it was raining, but not bother with the detail that it was a light drizzle as opposed to a downpour.  If the stories we tell are partial, then they are farther away from the truth, right?  Because I leave things out when I describe Madison, my version is even less real.

Emily Dickinson

Or perhaps my version is actually more real.  Emily Dickinson wrote, “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant–/Success in Circuit lies.”  When we turn “reality” into a story, are we making it more or less true?  What exactly is the truth we’re telling?  Is truth conveyed in a perfect mirror image of Madison, knowing already that it could only be a mirror image of the Madison I experience, as opposed to the Madison experienced by someone else?  Or is truth conveyed in what Dickinson calls the “slant”, the “circuit”?

Have you ever read a story or a novel and thought to yourself, “Yes, that is exactly how that feels.”  Or, “Yes, that is exactly how that is.”  It is the truth.  But it’s not.  Someone made it up.  And yet it is still the truth.  It is a different kind of truth.  A truth that is made-up, but real.  A larger truth about what it means to lose, to win, to love, to grieve, to laugh, to cry.  A truth about what it means to live.  That is the other kind of truth which stories might, in fact, be best equipped to tell.

So why make up a fictional place to tell your story?  In part because all places are somewhat made up anyway.  But also perhaps because a made-up place is a better way to get at the particular kind of truth which stories are meant to tell.

Stay tuned next time when I explore the god-like giddiness of making up your own town or city or country in a story.

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