I have noticed in my writing that often I build a story around a particular place or landscape. It’s the story’s foundation, so to speak—in the literal sense of a founding. I start with a thought of a particular place—the first farm I worked on, the Arizona desert, the Lost Coast, the forested surroundings of my favorite campground—and then I see something happen there or someone residing there, and from that place the story develops. Sometimes it develops easily and sometimes not, and sometimes it never quite develops at all; I have a few of those languishing on my hard drive. Sometimes it is not an exact place but more a sense of place, as in my Fragment “Static on a Quiet Night.” For that, it was the thought of a lonely cabin on a dry, wind-swept plain, probably in Eastern Oregon but perhaps elsewhere. A similar idea of setting inspired “Almost Home,” although for that story it was more the vision of Luce arriving home to her ranch on a horse, returning from her trip to Spokane, that sparked that tale.
What I find interesting about this is that it is not so much the characters that at first define my stories, or kick them off. It’s far more often the land. I don’t know how common this is among other writers, but much as how I often return to the land, nature, or particular settings for my essays, it seems that a strong sense of place is crucial to my finding a story to tell.
Granted, this is not a hard and fast rule; for the story I am currently working on, the tale spins out of and in some ways is centered on a Christmas tree and Christmas itself. And yet in a way I think that exception proves the rule. Christmas remains an important holiday for me, and it’s one that brings forth a lot of complicated emotion. It also holds certain strong imagery for me. Not religious, admittedly, as I am not really a Christian, but more arising from childhood, from late nights sitting quietly in a dark room lit only by the lights on the Christmas tree, from traditional Christmas music charged with religious imagery and emotion rather than consumer affectation. When I build a story around a particular place or landscape, I am tapping into that same kind of charged emotion and imagery to build a story around the emotions and considerations that place brings forth in me.
It’s from there that I build my characters and the world around them, and that construction is dependent on the place from which they come. A story I write based in the forests of the Pacific Northwest is going to have a different mood from one based in the Arizona desert, and that mood again will prove different for a story set on a droughty plain. The land informs the characters, informs the story, informs what I am trying to say. It’s an interesting realization, because it in part makes me wonder if the land defines the story or if the story defines the land. When inspiration strikes me and it comes as a vision of a particular place, and then that first action that takes place there, do I start with an unconscious desire to explore that place and then move into a story inspired by the land itself? Or do I start with an unconscious knowledge of the story I want to tell and begin with a place that fits the narrative? I honestly don’t know, which I think is a suggestion as to how mystifying a process writing a story is. What is inspiration? What is craft? It often feels as if it’s nothing more than a god presenting me a package that may be a gift or may prove a terror.
Most of the places I write about are some version of something I know. Even in my story set on Mars, “Exodus,” I used my time living in Arizona and my explorations of the desert there as partial inspiration for the alien terrain. One of the joys of writing stories rooted in place is the opportunity to revisit these places and reminisce about their impact on me. It is also a way to get a sense of just what they meant to me, though usually at something of an unconscious level, at the level of impression rather than conscious, explicit thought.
Most of that understanding comes out of the characters. They come as a conduit, connecting the landscape in which they reside to whatever thoughts I have of the world. It makes me think of my old blog Of The Hands and the ways I used it to explore my reactions to farming, to the natural world, to the ways in which I was then living and how I saw all that connected to this strange world of ours. As a way to explore questions of sustainability and right living, of voluntary poverty and appropriate technology, of the impacts of our political, cultural, and economic systems on the natural world, the blog served as a venue for me to wrap my thoughts of the human around my thoughts of the land. And in the stories I write I sometimes think these old thoughts reemerge in new ways, and I imagine that this is one of the reasons I write so often of place. It remains, even in my current life in the city, one of my primary preoccupations.
In some ways I’ve already written about this. As I said in that blog post, it’s the natural world that so often catches my attention in my writing. It’s from there that I explore the human world, from there that I define and learn my characters. I think it is simply a by-product of my interest in the intersection of the human and non-human, and the ways that the non-human world is a critical and necessary context for what, to me, are the most interesting questions of what it is to be human. That does not mean that those questions aren’t at times rooted in human relationships, but that I see the broader world as always a necessary and driving context. Even our exclusively human interactions cannot be divorced from the myriad non-human contexts in which they take place.
It all begins with the land. It’s what forms and molds us, and what defines how we will be human. I do think, in the end, that it lays out so much of the path we will take in our lives, whether we recognize that or not. And so it makes sense that it should define the course of the stories I write. It is the basis of all that we do, after all, and the contour that helps guide our path. I can think of little better to write about.