Geography of Fiction

When writing fiction, it always helps to have a geography in your mind, a space within which you can walk around and orient yourself so that your characters know where they are, which way to move, where to stand, how to be in that space.

In my new novel most of the action takes place in Key West, Florida, although my main character is a man from rural Tennessee.  He sees the island from the point of view of an outsider so he thinks of it as exotic, foreign, even like a world that is the opposite of his own.  As one of the lines in the novel says, he has gone from "a world of trees to one of the sea."  He loves Key West, but he is forever missing his home, the fictional community of Harpeth River, Tennessee (based on several small communities along the Harpeth River in the area just outside Nashville).

Throughout the novel he is drawn back to a pivotal moment in his life that happened near the banks of the Harpeth River.  It's a moment that haunts him.  This is just one example of how I have created a geography of fiction to fuel my writing.  Whenever I needed to feel I was with that character in this integral moment in his life, I would often go to the banks of the Laurel River, very near where I grew up, and where my parents still lived.  A couple times I went to the actual Harpeth River of the book but since that is about three hours from me, in times of need I let the Laurel stand in for the Harpeth.  The same elements are there:  a quality of light that is filtered through river-fed leaves, the slow, barely noticeable movement of the river in summertime, wildflowers waving in the sunlight just before the woods swallow me up at the river's edge.

I go there to get into my character's mind, to know his world better, to know the geography he thinks of as home.  Even if you are creating a world completely different from your own, I recommend having touchstone places that allow you to get beneath the novel's skin and roam around.

I'm including here a couple of very short videos that show you the place that has helped me know the character of Micah Sharp so well, and to create a scene that was life-changing for him and will haunt him forever.  Go here to see the Pasture.  And here to see the River. If I play my cards right, readers will feel as if they've been to this place, too.

And a not-so-gentle reminder to all writers, and all people:  get outside more often.  Nothing will do a better job of making you a better writer, or a better person.


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