Thursday, March 22, 2018

Making A Real World

Great-grandfather's farm

After I read Vicki’s entry about location research, below, I commented that I’ve researched a lot of places using Google and imagination. But upon reflection, I have to admit that is not really true. I think that it’s incredibly helpful to experience a place before writing about it. My series is set in a place that I know down to my bones, because I was raised there. However, the place I write about and the place I was raised no longer exist, so I actually rely on memory—and use imagination to fill in the gaps.

Where I live now

But it’s true that there is no substitute for actually experiencing a place. I’ve been to Britain several times, and every time I'm reminded that we may speak a common language (kind of), but we are not the same. I get the same impression when I travel to different part of the United States. I moved  to Arizona thirty-four years ago and was quite surprised to find out that it's very different from Oklahoma. I did not recognize one native plant, tree, grass, bug, bird, or lizard. Who would have thought it? Both states are located in the American Southwest. You'd think the cultures and the landscape would be basically the same. But in my experience, keeping in mind that I am not an Arizona native and live in a giant metro area, Arizona is culturally like back door Los Angeles, but more conservative in attitude. Oklahoma, at least when I lived there and knew it best, is easily as conservative as Arizona, but the culture is like nowhere else I've ever been. Put Texas, Arkansas, New Mexico, and Kansas in a blender and mix it well, and you may get an idea. I am quite politically and socially liberal, but I can't deny that I am marked by the values of the place I grew up. And it shows in the characters and themes I write about.

Tulsa, OK, along the Arkansas River

I was born and raised in Tulsa, a rich oil town located in the hilly bend of the Arkansas River. I came up among people in three piece suits, cowboy boots and stetsons. My father owned a construction business and raised quarter horses on the side. My mother ran his office. I rode horses every weekend. The picture at the top is my great grandfather's farm in eastern Oklahoma, where I spent a lot of time when I was a kid. I played in blackjack woods draped with wild grapevines, hot and sweaty and covered in cockleburs and chiggers. I picked up wild pecans off the ground by the bucketsful in the fall. At the time, I'd have rather stayed at home and read a book. I was not a lover of the outdoors. Now I look back on it through a golden haze of nostalgia. In fact, I write about it.

The author creates a universe with her choices and invites a reader in. If the writer is really good, the reader is enveloped in the story and moves through it without being quite aware that he’s in a made-up world. The writing is all-enveloping, but unseen.

I’ve quoted this before, but it is to the point. The very best writing reminds me of one of my favorite Zen sayings: The fish is not aware of the water it swims in.

That’s what we writers are shooting for.

4 comments:

Donna S said...

Donis, enjoyed your post very much and I agree wholeheartedly with it. I took a course, by mail, years ago, on writing for children and had to submit a short, descriptive article of an event from my own childhood, from memory.

I grew up in a small town closely associated with the Mennonite people who held a market every Saturday morning and I found I could close my eyes and see it clearly and had no problem writing about it at all, so I guess I must fall into the category of people who would have to have been to a location or place or experienced it personally in order to write about it.

Irene Bennett Brown said...

Great post and I can identify with every word. I think we have an emotional tie to our birthplace that's always with us. My family moved from Kansas to Oregon many decades ago, but I feel Kansas in my bones, love Kansas history and writing about it. And the people. I received an endorsement recently from a college English professor for my upcoming novel, Miss Royal's Mules. He has said that he "might be the only English professor in the plains that cultivated corn with a mule team."

Catherine Macdonald said...

Thanks for these interesting posts about arriving at a setting that a reader can “live” in. Here is a related issue. Having been a historian in my former life, a profession in which you are never supposed to make things up, I struggle sometimes with inventing geography in my mystery books. I like to stick to the geography that is actually there, and like most of us, I like to see and experience the setting I’m writing about.

But sometimes castles are just not located where you need them to be. So in my current book, set in Scotland, I invented a castle to suit the purposes of my story. I feel that as a writer of fiction, I have a special license to invent or exaggerate as necessary if it serves the story I’m telling. But I feel enough guilt about it to point out in my Afterword that readers shouldn’t expect to find that castle in Scotland, that it is fictional. Do others experience this kind of guilt?

Charlotte Hinger said...

Donis--My heart is still in Kansas. There's just something about the state.