Much like real estate, location in a novel can be as important as character or plot. Location not only gives us a framework in which to ground ourselves, it allows us to think outside the words written and fills in the gaps the author does not have pagespace to dedicate to.
Telling you my latest novel is set in the bayous of southern Louisiana is going to give you a very concrete vision of where we are. You can almost see the Cypress trees, with their knees poking up through the muddy water…the Herons looking impassively on as you pole by in a flat bottomed boat…the thick skinned Gators splashing past with a powerful thrust of their tail…and the rich southern Creole accent. Ok, perhaps not in that detail but we all know what the swamp is supposed to look like, we know it has water and greenery and animals. We know that getting in the water might not be the best idea and we know that it’s going to be hot and muggy.
We’ve got a starting point to work from and a place we can build on. Having told you this I can now tell you some other things, this is set in the future after a devastating disease has killed off a large portion of the population. I can tell you this swamp is mostly deserted and those that are left have moved from the stilted houses in current use to tree houses connected via long swinging bridges. I can tell you that the swamp, while mostly unchanged the fear of it and the people that live in it has grown over the years, leaving it and everything in it mostly untouched.
Now what do you think we are going to find in there? Something terrible or wonderful? You don’t know, but you’d like to now wouldn’t you?
All of this and all I’ve done is describe the location and how it has changed (or stayed the same) in response to my plot.
Location can also be a dangerous place to tread. Before going to Louisiana I’d written a scene where my heroine visits the Gray City, which just happens to be the ruins of New Orleans. I’d never been to that city before, but thought it would be much like any other city but with the addition of the French Quarter.
There is a unique flavor to that city…history runs through its heart like the great muddy Mississippi, pride hangs as thick as the moss from the bayou trees and the love of fun is as mixed and overwhelming as the taste of gumbo. Without seeing it, without experiencing it I would never have captured the regal ruin that it could become. Without my experiences I would have been left watching the city from the outside, doomed to recreate the one-dimensional façade captured on every Hurricane Katrina and Mardi Gras documentary.
My favorite story about location comes not from a book, but from the popular TV show “Bones”. In the very first episode Bones gets off an international flight at Dulles Airport (it even says it is Dulles at the bottom of the screen). They show her talking with someone in front of a huge window and famed in that window is the Washington Monument.
Now if you’ve ever flown into Dulles (on purpose or accident) you know that if you saw the Washington Monument from there you’re either a) looking at an advertisement, b) hallucinating or, c) are Superman using crazy long distance see through anything eyes. Dulles is nowhere near the Mall or that monument; as a matter of fact it’s 40 minutes away (without traffic). I know that many people here in the area groaned at this, it would not have been hard to use one line of dialogue to explain that she was catching a connecting flight from somewhere to D.C. to put her in at Reagan (right downtown), but they didn’t. Instead they screwed with the landscape of an area that many people know…it wasn’t a great idea although I’m sure many people didn’t catch it, but for those who did it stretched the suspension of disbelief. Suddenly we are snapped back into a world where we know that there is no “Jeffersonian” or super cute Forensic Anthropologist that is allowed to carry a gun and accompany an FBI agent on interrogations (although I know a few super cute Forensic Anthropologists -bones are cool- none of them have their own personal FBI agent!).
Moral of this story, take us there and drown us in the details but let us paint the background for you, we’ll be a lot happier that way. Also don’t move the major landmarks too much or you might lose us. Ok, now that we’re cool…
Find your peace and live it, even if it’s in a land far, far away…once upon a time…or just next door.