If you are an emerging writer, note: A strong sense of place is a real key to developing the richly delicious details that good fiction needs. Here’s a quote that hits the nail on the head about the role of a sense of place from the website of a great writer, Ivan Doig. One last word about the setting of my work, the American West. I don’t think of myself as a “Western” writer. To me, language—the substance on the page, that poetry under the prose—is the ultimate “region,” the true home, for a writer. Specific geographies, but galaxies of imaginative expression—we’ve seen them bothRead More →

When I wrote my previous post to this blog on a whimsical piece by James Boswell and Samuel Johnson, I mentioned it made me remember a similar piece overflowing in a sense of place. Here ’tis. It’s by a North Dakota writer, Linda Hasselstrom, who writes and runs a writer’s retreat at her home, Windbreak House, not too far from Rapid City in western South Dakota. I ran across it quoted in The Sierra Club Nature Writing Handbook (1995), by John A. Murray. The piece, like Boswell’s “Meditation on a Pudding,” finds an exultant sense of place in an item of food . . .Read More →

Last week I did a pleasant book-signing at Boswell Book Co. (for A Guide to Fantasy Literature; my thanks to Daniel Goldin, proprietor, and Jason, for hosting!). Boswell Books is a Milwaukee indie bookstore, named for James Boswell (1740–95), a literary Scottish laird, described by one biographer as a complicated fellow, with “his rippling good nature, his extravagance and folly and weakness, his odd piety, his awful glooms, his alternations of revelry and solemnity . . .” and known today mostly as a companion of Samuel Johnson, the famous dictionaryist (okay, lexicographer). He loved good conversation, liquor, travel, writing . . . hey, a manRead More →

To learn to see and write better, there are great books to inspire you. One of the finest, an exquisite book of nature writing, is Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), winner of a Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction, an account of a year spend looking closely at the world centered around a creek in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. As Eudora Welty (no slouch herself when it comes to sense of place), wrote in the New York Times Book Review: “The book is a form of meditation . . . about seeing.” Here’s a brief sample, in which she describes a breezy lateRead More →

There are several things that drive a novel’s fictional story from the first pages. Think of a story as a kind of journey, something with forward motion. If you think of the metaphor of an automobile, the plot of a story might be considered the engine, the motive power. But something is needed to propel a car: fuel. For a story, that should be the deep desires of the characters. You can have a perfectly decent story (a nice car). But it you don’t have the fuel of desire, it doesn’t really go anywhere. No means of propulsion. If the plot moves forward, it willRead More →

A compelling opening for a novel can be an intriguing description of place. Here’s the start of a 2004 fantasy for young readers, The Sea of Trolls, by Nancy Farmer, 3-time winner of a Newbery Honor award. Jack woke before dawn and listened to the cold February wind lash the walls of the house. He sighed. It was going to be another rotten day. He stared up at the rafters, savoring the last minutes of warmth. He was bundled in a cocoon of wool blankets over a bed of dried heather. The floor was deep, below the level of the house. The wind that foundRead More →

“There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.” — Willa Cather I was talking informally with a writer the other day at a book signing I was doing, and she told me she was writing a novel. Tell me about it, I said. So she did, giving me a decent short pitch for a contemporary literary novel. My advice to her: mention the place where the story takes place. A sense of place is often overlooked as an important pitch factor. But if Willa Cather is correct, and there areRead More →

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