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Adventures in Writing, Reading & Book Culture

The Writing Life: Scene Location

I went to the park this morning. Writing was on my mind; my new novel is seeping through my cranium cracks, but I’m wearing a hat to soak up the ooze while I do some further scene & character development. Thus, I needed to get out of the house for fresh fields, lateral vision, and the scent of automated life outside my palace apartment.

Down the street lies a beautiful park with an ancient (restored) vineyard, sloping hills and flat lawns, lush pine greenwoods, a fashioned grotto with fountain and labyrinthine “rocks,” and a cascading waterfall w/pond surrounded by oak, maple, pine, and chestnuts. The latter is where I sat to read through my notes, noodle with scenes, and capture dialogue of some characters yet “solid” in my mind.

Before I got up to the waterfall, however, I had walked along a path lined by weeping pines and European plane trees, silver-hued rhododendrons and flowering begonias. As I walked I thought of my characters, now married and the husband, a painter, asking his wife to model for him nude while she’s pregnant with their first child. Hardly a prude, her only stipulation is that he paint her outdoors. This, she thinks, should break his resolve. But no, he’s all for that, and has the perfect place: a forest, west of the city, secluded from dawn to noontime, when the chill air is swept out by summer breezes.

What I had imagined as I walked along this path was about thirty places that could work for these “painting” scenes: from western Illinois to Malta to the French Alps to a Venetian urban park, and all the way back to a Midwest golf course on which I first learned to play the game. But all of those places — as vivid in memory as nearly anything I’d experienced — didn’t seem as suddenly real as the very park in which I stood.

“Here is your location,” I thought. Here were indeed nice frames in which, wonderfully and suddenly (such as inspiration strikes) a nude pregnant mother-to-be might be seen, on a canvas, as a classical figure. This is what she would become under the guided artistry of her husband.

I took out my camera and began taking pictures. What? Of course!

These are canvases in which — on which — I only had to see and insert my leading lady. This, I realized, was something how (I don’t known for sure, because I’ve not worked on a film production) a location director finds places for film scenes. Of course, I could have walked around for awhile and taken notice of settings, nooks, crannies, and grottoes … but I wanted an exactness because, for these scenes, my artist-protagonist is fascinated with the various chroma of the flora that surrounds him. Inspired? Indeed!

A few thoughts about what happened today.

Firstly, I’ve worked for years now with the notion that — so well espoused by Eudora Welty in her Paris Review interview of 1972 — wherever I’m at and whomever I’m with can somehow infiltrate my story. So when I turned 360 degrees to see where I was in this park, I saw parts of this grand stage that I could use in my story. Thus, the photographs.

Secondly, I was reminded of Ezra Pound’s tutoring the young Ernest Hemingway by, among other things, taking him to the Louvre to look at paintings, and asking him to think about how he would write a description of the particular scene before which they stood. (Pound also, famously, instructed Hemingway to read the Russians and the French to learn how to write short stories — but that’s for another blog post.)

Lastly, the story of Vladimir Nabokov teaching literature at Cornell University struck me as particularly relevant. He told his students that if they were going to read Joyce’s “Ulysses” they best have a map of Dublin nearby as they worked their way through the story.

While much of any story setting can come from real places, we often must place scenes in invented spaces — most scenes happen indoors, and whose house or apartment or office are you thinking of while you write? — but for those scenes that are specific for so many reasons, not least of which is the imagery you want to convey to the reader, actual places are integral to your creativity and for the story’s success.


What Beauty is my newest novel, a story of art, obsession and ego. Read an excerpt here. It’s available as an ebook, too.

The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.


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