Willa Cather: Pitching Novels with Place

Willa Cather: Pitching Novels with Place

“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 are only a small number of “stories” . . . then one of the significant differences is where that story takes place.

The same “story” is different if it takes place in Milwaukee or rural Louisiana, in New York City or Stockholm, in Napa Valley of California or the Red River Valley of the Dakotas. With interesting and unique details; location becomes a reason people will read the same “two or three human stories” over and over: because it’s different in each location.

Consider Willa Cather’s own work. O, Pioneers! may be one of those few stories . . . but oh, what a place!

One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away. A mist of fine snowflakes was curling and eddying about the cluster of low drab buildings huddled on the gray prairie, under a gray sky. The dwelling-houses were set about haphazard on the tough prairie sod; some of them looked as if they had been moved in overnight, and others as if they were straying off by themselves, headed straight for the open plain. None of them had any appearance of permanence, and the howling wind blew under them as well as over them.

For more on developing a sense of place in your writing, check out my website, Great Lakes Literary, where not long ago I posted an article with some tips for writers on the topic.

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