The Power of Place

Wendy Lawton

Blogger: Wendy Lawton

I just finished reading the final draft of Julie Klassen’s second book in her Ivy Hill series, The Ladies of Ivy Cottage which will be out in late fall. Part of what I wrote back to her is this: “This may be your best book yet. I loved every minute of reading and was sad to come to the last page. Rich in detail, I couldn’t stop reading. You were made to write this kind of ensemble fiction— village fiction. I’ve come to realize this is my favorite kind of fiction, where the author creates a place in which I long to live and slowly lets us into each inhabitant’s life. Like Louise Penny’s Three Pines, Cranford, Gilmore Girls, Mitford, Avonlea. . .”

It jogged my memory and I realized I blogged on the power of place a couple years ago. I couldn’t help looking it up and republishing it here. This is what I wrote:

What do Amish fiction, Gilmore Girls, and Mitford have in common? The creators of all of these have tapped into our longing for a sense of belonging, a strong sense of place.

It brings to mind, Virginia Smith’s new Tales from the Goose Creek B & B series. In minutes stolen mostly from sleep, I read the introductory novella, Dr. Horatio vs. the Six-Toed Cat and the full length The Most Famous Illegal Goose Creek Parade. Two delightful reads and I’m a huge fan of this series and already long to move to the fictional Goose Creek, Kentucky. Yep. I’m a Creeker.

I’ve talked before about my enthusiasm for Louise Penny‘s Chief Inspector Gamache series set in the fictional Quebec town of Three Pines. As I’ve talked with other ardent Penny fans we all agree we want to meet at The Bistro someday. The village of Three Pines is more real to us than many of the brick and mortar towns surrounding us.

51tCwXvOoOL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_It’s the same with Amish or Amish-like series. I’ve actually visited the Kentucky Shaker community Ann H. Gabhart used as the setting for her Shaker village of Harmony Hill. Her new Hidden Springs murder mystery series offers the same sense of place. Ann understands the importance of a sense of belonging. She lives on an idyllic farm a mile from where she was born. She worships at a small country church just a short drive through winding country roads. Sigh!

Judith Miller has written two series about the seven Amana Colonies— High Amana, East Amana, Middle Amana, West Amana and the others. Each settlement is a community built around the concept of hard work, caring for one another, keeping the old ways and serving God. The one thing all six books have in common is that deep sense of belonging.51KPl9nYzgL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_

The same dynamic is the reason I love Alexander McCall Smith’s #1 Ladies Detective Agency. Precious Ramotswe, a “traditionally built” African woman starts her detective agency in the small village of Gabarone in Botswana. Her innocent wisdom and love for Botswana invites us into a community that somehow becomes our own. A sense of belonging to Botswana.512Z4QefB4L._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_

Think of the other ones we love— Lauraine Snelling‘s Blessing, Betsy & Tacy‘s Deep Valley, and on and on.

When I’m in need of regrouping or mindless refreshment I shamelessly binge-watch television episodes of Gilmore Girls— set in the town of Stars Hollow. Almost all the characters and settings are centered around the grassy town square. The townspeople walk to Luke’s Diner, to Doose’s Market or gather at Miss Patty’s. The setting becomes another character in itself. A sense of belonging. People leave and drift back throughout the series. I also binge watch British series, like  Cranford and Lark Rise to Candleford, for that same sense of belonging.91H-wnJs3nL._SX385_

And Garrison Keillor. I’ve long claimed Lake Woebegone as my true hometown.

Folsom Street

Wendy (middle) with sister, Linda, & brother, Jimmy, on the steps of the Folsom Street apartment house.

Funny isn’t it? Do you know where I really grew up? In the Mission District of San Francisco. We lived on the second floor of a four-apartment building on Folsom Street. We owned a car but it was housed in a rented garage several blocks away. The lot our building was on was very deep. Behind our building was an unlikely treasure— an English garden. The garden paths were lined with abalone shells and it was fenced with Victorian iron railings. An old wisteria grew up the high rickety back stairs to our apartment. The garden gate was always locked but our landlady, Mrs. Miller, an English war bride, would open the gate to us while she gardened. It was there I learned about flowers– scotch broom, nasturtiums, irises and old English roses. The Mission was not a prestigious address. Not then. Not now. The lot next to us was a burnt out foundation– a pit that made the perfect playground for a pack of kids. Best of all, a billboard had been erected in the front of the empty lot. The billboard supports became the frame on which we built a platform–a clubhouse– with found boards and bent nails. Our own urban treehouse. A sense of place in a noisy neighborhood.

Our talks with editors often turn to “What’s next?” Why do readers still crave Amish? What is it that makes these books so perennially popular? It is that sense of belonging. C. S. Lewis named that deep need for place Sehnsucht— a German word he translated as an “inconsolable longing.” Lewis had it for all things “Northern.” He came to recognize it as an earthly expression of our longing for heaven.

So there you have it. That sense of belonging partly satisfies our sehnsucht— our inconsolable longing for our ultimate home. As novelists we simply call it the setting, but it is more. So much more.

What about you? What literary settings give you that sense of belonging? Do you see how powerful setting can be and how much readers long for a sense of place?

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  1. Carol Ashby says:

    A thought-provoking post, Wendy. For me, feeling that I understand the setting is more important than feeling I’d want to live there. I love the Regency period of Jane Austen, but I wouldn’t want to live in a time and place so rigidly controlled by a class structure defined by bloodline instead of merit. I’ve spent much time and energy learning about the Roman era so I can write accurately. It’s a great period for stories with intense emotional conflict. I love writing about the Roman empire around AD 100, but I can tell you with absolute certainty that I would never want to live in that world!

  2. Ah, Wendy. Every child should grow up next to an empty lot with traces of an old building (mine was a brewery) — the foundation for many flights of imagination.
    * Amish, Botswana, Canada. Lauraine’s peek into the Red River land of my ancestors — community transcends culture. We are created for relationships.

  3. Oh Wendy,
    I loved this post the first time and love it all the more the second. I have to put some of these books on my to read list. They sound wonderful. I am helping my 99-year-old grandfather get his story printed up in time for their 75th wedding anniversary this summer. But when we are done, I need to remember this and be sure to infuse a sense of place in my WIP. The story I intend to edit in time for conference is set at camp and living at a camp I cannot forget those amazing setting details that bring the forest alive for me. The pine needles baking in the sun and sending out that spicy, rich perfume that hangs in the air on a summer evening. The song of red-winged blackbirds and woodpeckers knocking on a tree and waking you up too early. The twisting dirt trail to your cabin and service berry bushes growing heavy with berries. Singing campfire songs under the stars and trying not to get caught on fire when one of the campers lets theirs burn and starts flinging it around to put it out. Tall grass rustling in the wind and the power of a summer storm. My goodness, I better hurry up and get back to writing. You have reminded me of something very important, thank you!

  4. I love this, Wendy. Thank you for reminding me of this critical place. I really tried to develop this in my first novel, because my main character had never really had a place to call home. I took the reader into the downtown shops, the downtown homes, the church, etc. It felt so comfortable and homey to me while writing it, and I pray readers would feel the same. My second novel takes place in another setting that I really try to give that home feeling to, in spite of the setting, but one thing about it, they return to this other setting … 🙂 And this is one of my all-time favorite posts that you’ve written …

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      I have always loved Henri Nouwen’s reading of his book, The Prodigal. In one word– home– he puts such longing.

  5. Great post, Wendy. I loved your description of the English Garden behind your childhood home.
    * Place can indeed become a character; C.S. Lewis did this masterfully in “Out Of The Silent Planet”; his imagined Mars is no less real to me than that of Ridley Scott’s film “The Martian”, filmed in Jordan’s Wadi Rumm (where much of “Lawrence Of Arabia” was shot). Both versions of the Red Planet ‘participate’ in their respective stories; author and director both allow and compel setting and reader/viewer to ‘be there’ together, a journey shared which makes story and fulfillment complete.
    * For Lewis it is the internally consistent and coherent description of a place completely alien yet hauntingly familiar, the Eden unspoiled. Scott showed the dispassionate menace, without which, as in the case of the similarly-coloured Bengal tiger, the grandeur and beauty could never achieve their highest form.
    * Sehnsucht is indeed real, but it’s not necessarily benign; its ultimate expression in found in the metaphor of the green light at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s dock which lured Jay Gatsby to destruction. It’s the pagan road lined by grinning idols, leading to places of green memory profaned by our attempts to conjure them back. Arthur C. Clarke wrote that every explorer is looking for something he lost, but that exploration is a sure trail to despair, a search for the necromancer’s key that will bring the past alive.
    * We long not for a place or time, but for a kinship that transcends our tears, and this has already been given us, our Blood-bought birthright.

  6. This gives me even more hope for my novel. My beta readers have said similar things about the wee village in rural Ireland in which the story is set. The village and Irish countryside and weather almost become a character in themselves.

    • I love that, Jennifer. You remind me of Carla Laureano and her work Five Days in Skye, set in Scotland. I think it’s wonderful to have a new place to discover. I wanted to go to Scotland … I even googled it on Google Earth. “Wee village” just sounds sweet. 🙂

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Perfect, Jennifer.

  7. I wonder if T.S. Eliot had that longing for belonging in mind…
    “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      That says in a handful of words what I tried to say in more than a thousand. This is a gift to us this morning.

    • I love that, Andrew, and I loved your description of your childhood home, Wendy. What a treasure to have such roots and such an ability to describe them. I agree with those who say they fall in love with place in the books that are their favorites. I complete agree.

  8. Wendy, as someone else mentioned, I loved this post the first time I read it, and it speaks even more clearly to me now.
    *Literary settings that give me that sense of belonging include Avonlea and Green Gables from the Anne of Green Gables series. Each one of the eight books in the series bring the setting alive. Susan May Warren’s Deep Haven is a place I’d love to visit. Each of the books I’ve read that are set in that place make me want to go and visit, and eat donuts in the local donut shop, drink coffee in the coffee place, and see the great lake as it is described in Deep Haven. 🙂
    *I’m taking your thoughts to heart and thinking about how to make my setting create that yearning for belonging in my WIP. Thank you for sharing this!

    • Jeanne, that’s how my aunt and uncle feel about Jan Karon’s Mitford Series … they’ve read the series so many times and have never tired of it. I haven’t read them, but I love when they summarize the stories for me … those books make them so happy. 🙂 It’s like home for them, for certain.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      And when we can remember the name of the place and even the inhabitants and shops long after reading, you know the author has nailed it.

      • Yes! I would add Jamie Langston Turner’s Derby series to the list of fiction that immersed me in place. The characters who made up Derby, South Carolina still live in my heart even thought it has been a decade since I read most of the books. I still go back to Some Wildflower in my Heart occasionally to remind myself of what amazing writing looks like. When an author can write an entire book about a school cafeteria employee whose life is completely unremarkable and yet so unforgettably remarkable…well, I digress. When I read her, I am IN Derby. And that is great writing.

  9. Wendy, back in the 1960s when I lived there, most of Sonoma County was rural, as was Marin County where I grew up. Now both are filled with houses and shopping centers. And even the Mission District in San Francisco where I used to live has changed tremendously. That’s why we need books that carry us away to places where life was simpler.

  10. Excellent article. I love books with a strong sense of place…and write them, too📚

  11. Jerusha Agen says:

    What an insightful post, Wendy. I’ve never thought of setting or place in this way before, especially as having a spiritual significance! Because I write suspense, my locations tend to have more of a sense of foreboding, sometimes grittiness. The places in my novels tend to reflect the character’s issues and problems or contribute to them. Perhaps a less positive use of setting and place is acceptable for suspense? I’d be curious to get your take on that. Thanks for this post!

  12. I always felt like I knew Avonlea and Anne’s surroundings. And, now I want to visit the Mission District! As a person who grew up in the inner city, your little paradise in the midst of a bit of harshness sounded lovely..
    One thing that I always try to do is develop a sense of home in the character’s setting, except the prison camp setting. I made that as bleak and harsh as possible.

  13. What a lovely post, Wendy. Your description of your childhood home definitely evoked that poignantly elusive sense of place–you are a beautiful writer! And so true that those books and series that evoke that sense of belonging are those who call us back again and again. Made me think of other TV shows I’ve loved, like Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, Downton Abbey or Call the Midwife–as soon as I hear the theme music playing at the beginning of an episode, something within me relaxes a bit and feels like coming “home”–because I “know” this place, these people. 🙂

  14. This line was profound:
    >> The village of Three Pines is more real to us than many of the brick and mortar towns surrounding us.
    I had to stop, lean back in my chair and ponder that one for a moment.
    Like you, I love the stories told by Garrison Keillor. I purchased my daughter and son-in-law tickets to a live performance by him on the 23rd of this month.
    Thank you for the walk down memory lane.

  15. Peggy Booher says:

    I haven’t read much fiction lately, but I remember that the No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency gave me
    that sense of belonging. The people in the village in Botswana aren’t that different from people around here.
    *In a fast-changing world, readers want a place they can return to that doesn’t change that much, where they know the setting and most of the characters.
    *It’s fascinating to me that in certain stories, a setting can almost become a character because of the affect the setting has on the characters. Those are the stories I like to read most, I think.
    *BTW, thanks for adding to my want-to-read list. I’d never heard of Virginia Smith and never read Louise Penny, but want to read them now!

  16. Anna Haney says:

    The Andy Griffith Show is a perfect example of a community that is also a character. Mayberry is a place so many long for.