Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Writing about Place

Laura Mahal circa 1979

By Laura Mahal

Often, when writing about place, authors tend to reach for descriptive language--adjectives and crafted phrases to conjure sights, sounds, and perhaps even tastes or tactile memories. We may dig into our own past to mine the sensory memories associated with a particular locale.

The idea being if we swirl these things together in the perfect way, we'll transport our readers by metro, plane, car, or canoe to that place we want them to know as intimately as we do.

My approach is a little different.

My goal is for the reader to understand why this place matters. Not just to me or to my characters, but to the “universal me.” What is there that we all can relate to, that allows the reader to know that they have, in fact, visited this place before?

I grew up outside of Pittsburgh in a rural area of western Pennsylvania. In 1979, Pittsburgh was dubbed the City of Champions after the Pirates won the World Series and the Steelers claimed their fourth Super Bowl win. 

The pride of champions was not limited to the city. The entire western portion of the state exulted in sports glory. We wore black and gold to school, and belted out the Sister Sledge song: “We are family.”

But if I were to write about place, you wouldn’t necessarily need to know that the Allegheny, Ohio, and Monongahela Rivers flow through the heart of the city. You could find Instagram pictures of downtown Pittsburgh or look up unlimited sports statistics on the Internet.

My father in his teaching heyday.

You might be more likely to care if I told you about a man who taught high school English and math for three decades. He directed our school plays and musicals and took countless kids to New York City so they could visit Central Park and get half-price tickets to see Broadway shows.

He was brilliant until Parkinson’s usurped his body. Most tragic was my father’s loss of access to words. He shook with violent tremors, unable to grasp the language portion of his brain. He wanted to quote Lady Macbeth or to relay something interesting he read in the newspaper, but the words eluded him.

How can place connect these seemingly disparate parts?

If I were to describe my dad and me traveling through the Fort Pitt tunnels, countryside on one end, bright lights and big city on the other, each breath-holding journey resulting in a shared baseball game; an eat-a-pound-of-pasta, get-it-for-free meal; or a trip to the Carnegie Museum, you might have a better picture of that place.

I could tell you what a rare treasure it was for a fifth child to sit in the front of our wood-sided station wagon, rather than the back seat that faced the road we had left behind. I could relay to you the distinctive sound of Bob Prince or Myron Cope's voices on KDKA radio, and educate you as to how the Terrible Towel became a thing.

But when limited to descriptions, place is often nothing more than a static locale. As a writer, you want place to comprise a snapshot in time. It has to become more than a sum of its parts. You must get at the universal truth behind the sundry details.

I was a child whose father held her hand until he became a child whose daughter held his hand.

"We are family."

Pittsburgh has changed since I was a kid. Three Rivers Stadium was torn down in 2001. The new baseball stadium is breathtaking. The city has grown a little taller, the skyscrapers shinier.  But it is still filled with meaning that extends beyond the skyline. Even if you’ve never been there, you have probably been to your own way station of aging and loss.

Take your readers to the dwellings of memory, never distant from our hearts, and you will find your way.


Matt Blk said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Patricia Stoltey said...

I especially like novels that treat the setting as another character in the story. Everything about the place is filtered through the main (human) character's point of view (even the weather), which helps bring the setting alive.

Share a Post