writing

On Places and Spaces

Towns, villages, farms, bustling overcrowded cities, or suburbia?

How does a novelist choose where their story is to take place? When I first began writing in earnest, I was sternly told by my English teacher to only write about which you know., that was stifling advice, but I took it to heart. So my first stories were little more than memoirs which I found limiting in plot, creativity and characters.

The school I attended was a private college prep short on outlets for creativity until junior year. Since I wasn’t too good a student in required sciences, foreign languages and math, I had no way to unwind, except in my precious diaries, so I turned to creative writing. There were the stories I gave to kids for whom I babysat, and the beyond sad story of a child with Leukemia. There were short stories I can’t even remember what they were about, but they’re still around today, stuffed in a chest, a treasure trove of memories.

All my writings took place in Baltimore until I’d sold a few magazine articles, and then I spread my wings to places I’d visited. New York City. Boston. Annapolis. Which makes me wonder how other authors choose their characters’ hometowns. Not all characters in all books live in places with a name. In the book “A Year by the Sea” it’s never mentioned what sea the author goes to , but by travel experience, it sounded like Nantucket or a Cape Cod village. John Cheever’s “The Wapshot Chronicles” definitely take place in New England, as it’s mentioned in the book, but having traveled to Nantucket 22 times, I often thought I was reading about parts of that coastline. Of course Maeve BInchey’s books took place in Ireland as she’s an Irish writer, the same as Elizabeth Jane Howard’s series of novels took place in the UK. And, Anne Tyler, known for her quirky characters, being from a neighborhood where I grew up, positioned her geeks and shy men and down on their luck women in Baltimore and the Eastern Shore.

My as yet to be completed novel starts out in Annapolis, using a house I once saw there, and ending up in a suburb of Baltimore, full of new homes, new roads, and newly planted shrubbery. I can never write anything fiction without a place in mind, as if all characters need roots in order to come alive for the reader.

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