Place in Fiction

Dominic Russ-Combs

This is a multifaceted introductory or intermediate writing prompt designed to allow students to access and utilize their personal experiences growing up. Often fledgling writers—especially undergraduates—feel like their lives haven’t been “traumatic” or “marginalized” enough to be worthy of literary attention. This, of course, couldn’t be further from the truth, and this exercise will lead students to interrogate and explore their upbringings by anchoring their writer’s eye in the sensory terrain of their hometowns and places. By the end of this exercise students should be writing about “what they don’t know about what they know,” accomplishing Eudora Welty’s brilliant imperative.

Ideally, instructors will pair a coming-of-age story of their choosing with Eudora Welty’s essay “Place in Fiction,” but any story or novel that has a strong sense of place will suffice. Other possible texts include The Ballad of the Sad Café (Carson McCullers), “Good Country People” (Flannery O’Connor), “Theory of Realty” (Holly Goddard Jones), or even the essay “Counterpointed Characterization” (Charles Baxter) for more advanced sections.

Sections A and B of Part I are designed to get students to render the worlds of their upbringings through their senses. For the most part, students have trouble intellectually or imaginatively engaging the places in which they grew up because they have intuitively absorbed the manners and habitudes of their home environments. Making them travel on foot (albeit in their mind) through their hometown makes them participate in their experience of their home as a reader or visitor. Instead of just getting into a car and stomping on the gas, they have to plot out the route they would otherwise blankly follow if behind the wheel. Walking, students must enter perception; they have to notice and ascribe. This is also why I ask students to remember or meditate first in order to ground themselves within their own inner narratives and expedite their imaginings. More important, this initial meditation exhorts students to evaluate what they remember and why.

Though only taking a few minutes, having students reduce sections A and B into a single representation or image for each sense should help them pin down an implicit and referential understanding of their settings around specific sensory nodes, which they can go back to in order to integrate a motif or deepen the subtext of their scene without interrupting or stifling the action.

Following Charles Baxter’s notion of counterpointed characterization, it’s easy to create conflict by putting opposites in contact with each other (as well as increasing a student’s capacity for empathy). Part II entices students to venture toward the other, while getting them thinking about the difference between the mundane (their hometown as they remember it, in exposition) versus the remarkable (what stands out to anyone not from there). The first gives them a greater sense of how their world organically lives and breathes, while the second guides them toward what might be interesting to the general reader.

Part III is designed to prompt students to integrate what they’ve learned examining The Ballad of the Sad Café or another story with the other essential components of fiction (story arc, scene, exposition, dialogue, action) and grounding it all within a dramatic conflict. The goal of the entire exercise isn’t so much to make place more important than it is, because place—as Welty asserts—cannot give fiction “its theme or inner feeling.” Still, if thoroughly mined and inhabited, place can couch or bolster the contrast between fiction’s “outside dress” and the truth of its “innermost thoughts,” leading students to a more authentic and deeply felt climactic revelation.

Step-by-Step Instructions

Lead students through the following steps. This exercise includes about fifty minutes of class time and a take-home assignment.

Part I (30 Minutes)

  1. Take a few minutes and think about your hometown or wherever you consider home to be. What spaces, images, icons, sounds come to the surface? Do you imagine a water tower, a stretch of road, a museum, a skyline of high-rises, or a subway stop? Don’t question what comes to mind; just make a mental note of these associations. Close your eyes. Go there, be there. (5 minutes)
  2. Leaving your house or childhood home, describe your walk from one end of your town, neighborhood, or borough to the other, making note of the passage: street signs, landmarks, paths. If you want, you can imagine yourself on a bicycle, but no cars. I want you out in the world, immersed in your senses. Pick a season. What are the predominant smells, sights, and sounds? Likewise, what sensory images might surprise or interrupt you along your route? Who might you bump into along the way? (20 minutes)
  3. Now that you’ve completed your trek through town, I want you to ascribe a single color, a sound, a tactile image, and a smell to your journey. These can be either literally present or analogous. Don’t over think it; just put down the first of each that comes to mind. (3 minutes)

Part II (20 minutes)

  1. Imagine a stranger. They can be from wherever, but they should be from a region that you might consider to be the exact opposite of your own. Also, try to fashion this stranger outside your age, sexual orientation, ethnicity, class, and gender. Place this person in the center of your town. What stands out to this stranger? Why? What does this stranger appreciate that you don’t?

Part III (Take home, 30 minutes, or one to three pages)

Write a scene or series of scenes that takes place in your town between this stranger and a real or imagined native. Using several of the details you listed, drive this scene to a climax.

Biography

A native of Louisville, Kentucky, Dominic Russ-Combs welded industrial models in Durham, North Carolina, before publishing his first stories and being awarded both a Stegner Fellowship and an Emerging Artist Award from the Kentucky Arts Council. His fiction has appeared in the Chicago TribuneKenyon ReviewCarolina Quarterly, and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, among others, and his poetry and creative nonfiction have appeared in Third Coast and Indiana Review. In 2017, he completed his PhD in English from Texas Tech University. He’s currently an instructor with Stanford University’s Continuing Studies’ Online Creative Writing Program.

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