The Sun Singer's Travels

Malcolm R. Campbell's World

Archive for the tag “sense of place”

On location: Liberty County Florida

Traveling to the Florida Panhandle today.

These “On Location” posts show my rationale for choosing various place settings for my books. They’re not gospel! They might not even be viable rationale. But, I post them anyway as indirect tips for other writers to consider as they decide how to choose place settings for their stories.

I used Liberty County in my books Eulalie and Washerwoman, Conjure Woman’s Cat, The Land Between the Rivers, and Mountain Song. It’s Florida’s least populous county with easy access to the Apalachicola River, the forbidding Tate’s Hell Swamp, the Gulf Coast, and Florida’s “Garden of Eden” trail, along with many square miles of swamp land and forests.

Why I chose the county

  1. River Styx in Liberty County – Florida Memory Photo. Needless to say, place names like this one are made to order in a conjure book.

    I grew up in the adjacent Leon County (Tallahassee) and spent many hours of Boy Scout camping and family day trips at sites in or near the county. I was not only writing about what I know, but about a very diverse and unique landscape with rare trees, rare wildlife, and an environment that’s off the beaten trail of the kind of development and tourism found in the peninsula section of the state.

  2.  My two conjure woman books lent themselves to a small-town environment in the part of the state known as “wire grass country.” That is, it was more natural to place a conjure woman in a far-away piney woods part of the state than a more populous area. The area also had a variety of legends, remnants of Indian settlements and their recurring cultural influence, and a small-town, insular world view.
  3. My old friend, the late Gloria Jahoda wrote a book about this part of the state called The Other Florida. For my purposes of telling a magical realism story, I wanted an area that was about as “other” as one can find. Her book also included legends that I grew up with, making them a lot easier to refer to in the story than the legends of a place I’d never visited with legends that would have been quite foreign to me. To some extent, magical realism uses legends and tall tales about a place as though they are real. These not only add ambiance to the book, but give readers from Florida bits and pieces of information they’re already familiar with.
  4. Florida, in years past, had a very strong KKK presence, a presence more pervasive in outlying areas. Since both of my conjure woman books pit a woman of magic against the Klan, this made the location a viable and historically accurate place for such a story even though I created a fictionalized small town to avoid any hard feelings (or law suits) with the residents and governments of an actual town. I named my town Torreya, after Florida’s unique and highly endangered tree that grows in this area and nowhere else.
  5. While my conjure books were set in the 1950s, The Land Between the Rivers at the dawn of time, and  Mountain Song in the 1960s, the area–when compared with major tourist destinations and development–is still remote. This helps an author do research because many of the attributes of the place in years gone by still exist today.

I consider a story’s place setting to be a very integral part of the fiction I write. If you like strong place settings, perhaps you will go through some of the same thought processes as I did when you choose the country, state, or town for your novel or short story.



Without a sense of place, your story floats in limbo

“Place matters. That’s what so many people seem to have forgotten. Is it because they spend most of their time indoor or online–so that they’ve lost touch with their environment? Is it because every city contains the same neon-and-concrete gauntlet of Targets, Little Caesars, Subways and Great Clips–so that every place looks like every other place else?” – Benjamin  Percy, “Move Mountains, Activating Setting,” in “The Writer’s Chronicle.”

I wish every aspiring writer would read, study and discuss this article because–in my view–if they fail to deal actively with the places where their stories are set, they will forever remain aspiring and never emerging.

Percy says that some aspiring writers are vague about place–or perhaps, too lazy to consider it–because they want readers to think their stories and novels could have happened anywhere. I agree with Percy when he says, “huh?” Stories don’t happen in nowheresville; they happen at specific places, and if you handle them well, the reader will still see that those stories have universality running through them from start to finish.

There's a lot going in in this busy street scene from the style of the buildings, to the trees, to the people and their conversations. What a shame to miss it by not showing it to the reader.

There’s a lot going in in this busy street scene from the style of the buildings, to the trees, to the people and their conversations. What a shame to miss it by not showing it to the reader.

I noticed this article because I feel strongly about the statement “place matters.” Percy has done too good a job with this feature article for me to try an sum it up in a post. But here are two things that stand out–possibly not the two things he would pick, but so it goes:

  1. Never start a story with dialogue. Yes, that can work. Usually it doesn’t. Why not? Because the voices doing the talking aren’t anywhere–words out of the fog in no room or house or field or forest. When you do this, the reader is lost, and s/he remains lost until you finally deign to say where the conversation is happening.
  2. Place–in modern stories and novels–isn’t a dry recitation of facts. Some readers say they only scan descriptive text (especially in the older novels we were assigned to read in high school) because nothing’s happening. The way to “fix this” is to show movement, characters or natural phenomena, so that something is always happening there.

I’ve approached this in multiple ways in my Florida Folk Magic Series. People move through places, talk about places, fight strange weather in places, talk about the magic lurking in places, and live in places that look one way and not any other way and go about their day to day activities in a setting rather than on a blank slate. When people talk, they might be sitting on a sofa on the back porch, spitting tobacco juice into the back yard, listening to the creek or throwing things off the bridge over the creek. They exist in a place the reader comes to know well.

Percy quotes a favorite passage of mine from the Great Gatsby to show that the description of a place can have activity and movement, a style that’s certainly more interesting than saying a room had some chairs and windows in it:

“We walked through a high hallway into a bright rosy-colored space, fragilely bound into the house by French windows at either end. The windows were ajar and gleaming white against the fresh grass outside that seemed to grow a little way into the house. A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding cake of the ceiling—and then rippled over the wine-colored rug, making a shadow on it as wind does on the sea.

“The only completed stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall. Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.”

Okay, so may not like this novel or even this passage. I won’t try and convert you. But it shows movement rather than dry objects. You can do the same with a sex scene, a car chase, or a killer stalking his victim through an old house or a dense forest.

Food for thought, but for more of a full course meal, read the article or check out the fine writing books by Donald Maass, including Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook: Writing Exercises to Put the Instruction into Action.



Readers want adventure – writers want a place to make it happen

Whether the good guys and bad guys are fighting with aircraft carriers and jets, Smith & Wesson .38 caliber police specials, swords and siege engines or magic spells, the writer needs a place to make it happen. Giving the reader a great place doesn’t mean going back to the old days when authors inserted hundred of words of description.

It’s simply a matter of having characters walk across something other than a blank canvas or a simplistic canvas. And, it also means using the place within the story rather than as a bunch of buildings, mountains, mobs of people, or wine-red seas in the background.

You may not know this place, but as an author, I hope my passion for it, makes the story more real and more exciting than it would be if I threw a dart at a map and said, “okay, there’s where my story will happen.”

Red Eagle Mountain, Glacier Park. Montana - NPS photo.

Red Eagle Mountain, Glacier Park. Montana – NPS photo.

When you put a book down, you’ll probably walk away with memories of what the characters did and said. The glue that holds all that together, however, is the place. And for the author, it has to be a place that s/he loves or hates with a relentless vengeance.

You May Also Like: How a writer sees locations for prospective stories


Malcolm R. Campbell’s novel “The Seeker” is set partly in Glacier National Park. Coming this summer, his novel “The Sun Singer” is also set in the park.

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