The Feeling of a Place

I’m a firm believer in the fact that places — places with import, places with history — have a feeling to them.  A feeling that reflect the emotions of that place, that reflects the experiences and realities, that reflects the truth.

And, no, I’m not going all New Age and hippy on you.  If you don’t believe me about the feeling of a place, have another look at the pictures I posted a few days ago of a burned stretch of forest.  Although a walk through a space like that is the best — and strongest — way to truly experience its eery, powerful presence, you still can get a sense of that through the photos themselves.  It touches you, a place like that.

Wait, what?  You still don’t believe me?  You still think I’m being overly, ahem, writer-ish?

Fine, let’s pull out the big guns…

In my travels, I have seen and done many things.  I’ve gotten the chills lighting candles to my dead sister in cathedrals across all of Europe…

I’ve been swept away by a true sense of infinity sitting at the end of a jetty at sunset, with nothing but water and fire and the end of the world in front of me…

But, most — and worst — of all, I’ve stood in Auschwitz…

Now, there is something about that place that gets to everyone who visits…and I do mean everyone.  It’s different for every person, of course, based on their own psyches and outlooks and life history.  For my brother, with a young daughter at the time, it was the display of children’s shoes.

For me, it was…well, there’s no way to sugar-coat it, it was the gas chamber.  The small, “test” chamber the Nazis built in the “model camp” to test and prove the concept of gassing their victims.  You can go inside that room.  From just outside the door it looks a whole lot like a shabby, beat-up gym shower.  A shower with a few strange fixtures in the ceiling that don’t quite belong…

Then you step inside.

Then the feeling hits you.

The terror.  The grief.  The pain.  The loss.  And, yes, the anger.

I lasted less than five seconds before I had to get out.

That is the feeling of a place.  That is the kind of thing I’m talking about.

AA80DA47-58C7-481F-AD43-39EFB0276E9ENot the grave of the USS Arizona, not the monument to Warsaw’s doomed young insurgents of the ‘44 uprising, not even the grave of a friend, has the power to bring me to my knees in the way that one small, cramped, dingy room does…OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The power, and the feeling, of a place is very real, and very, very potent.

It’s a bit self-centered, but I’m going to give an example below from my own writing because we, as writers, have to understand the power of a place.  We have to feel the power of the places we write about, whether they are real or exist only in our own minds…if we don’t feel that power, how the hell can we expect our readers to do so?

Connor led Nat down a tight alley in the very corner of the hold, an almost-invisible passage barely wide enough to walk single file.

They turned the corner at the end and that alley opened into a wider passage. The emptiness felt strange to Connor. It felt very strange. That space didn’t belong, it didn’t fit; space in the Market was far too precious to waste like this.

On the walls, burned and twisted plastic had been artfully cut and shaped into subtle, stylized flames. The detritus of the fire, turned to memory. Connor slowed. The flames felt all too real. He wasn’t sure he was ready for this.

At his side again, Nat hugged his arm and walked with him down that forty-foot passage. The flames were just the beginning, and the closer to the end they came, the more Connor slowed. His throat closed as memory and emotion welled. The demons were coming out…in force. He knew he needed to do this, knew Oz was right, but he wasn’t sure he could pay the price.

There was always a price.

The Memorial itself was simple, in the way the most powerful things always seem the simplest. A bronze statue of a man huddled in the corner, knees drawn up and face buried in his hands. That was it. No grandiose inscriptions, no bright colors, nothing but pain and loss.

Connor could understand why no one stayed long, could feel his breaking point coming near.

He stood in silence, lost. Nat was still holding his arm, leaning against him. His whisper was barely audible. “That’s my dad, Nat. At least to me.”

“Your dad?” Nat’s voice was equally quiet, breaking with her own emotion. “He was killed…in here? He was part of the Riot?”

Connor knew she couldn’t see, but nodded anyway. “My dad was a drunk and a fool, but there wasn’t a drop of violence in him. He never hit me, not once, not even when I deserved it.” His quiet whisper held sadness, and a great deal of bitter rage. “I still don’t know if he burned in the fire, or was shot by the mappo. My life ended that day, Nat. All because my dad decided to go fucking shopping.”

That could be his dad, just sitting there, silent. Dead. While hers sat in luxury and comfort…the man who did this.

“He dreamed, Nat,” Connor continued, talking to himself more than to her. “He never accomplished shit, but he always dreamed. Always had some plan to make our lives better. I resented the hell out of him as a kid. Resented that he brought us here, resented that his dreams always failed. I thought I hated him, at the end there.” There were no tears, but his voice was almost inaudible, a sigh more than a whisper, “God, I miss him.”

And, of course there’s a song for that…err, well…I’m gonna stretch for this one.  It is not as much a place as a time, but the memories and feelings are just as indelibly imprinted:

The Places You Want To Walk

I’ve been thinking about settings recently. Not so much the specific, scene-level settings — although those are part of it — but more about the bigger, broader setting of stories as a whole. And, well, about one in particular…

I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned before that many of the stories I have lurking in the back of my mind, waiting (im)patiently for their chance to be come into being, are fantasy. Well, settings for fantasy stories need to have something special and original about them. Whether that “special something” is the location itself (an African-based kingdom, say) or something inherent to the world/society (Sanderson’s Mistborn series, for example), the days of just plunking a story down in a rural England analogue are long, long gone.

So, the story I’m thinking about writing next has a cool setting…but it’s one that’s still completely undeveloped. I want (and need) to do some research, as well as get some real-world inspiration. I want to get my brain and body thinking and feeling it before I sit down to actually write about it.

Okay, that sounds great…what’s the damned problem? I hear you ask…

It’ll kill me.

No, really — going the places I want/need for that research and inspiration is likely to have some fairly uncomfortable side effects.

Dammit, why does the real world have to intrude all the time?

Now, I’m a big believer in the fact that a story’s setting — both the physical world, and the socio-cultural milieu — needs to be real to the writer. Being able to see it is just not enough. You have to also hear and smell and taste it. You also have to know how it drives its inhabitants, and how it affects the story, before you can really get your characters and details right.

For me, that means a setting has to be based — at least partly — on places I’ve been, and/or on things I’ve seen and done. And, yes, that applies just as much to sci-fi and fantasy as it does to any other genre. Hell, even the closed, claustrophobic world of poverty and exploitation of my current sci-fi stories is very much based on real places I know…

Okay, so now to tie that all together — that story I want to write? It’s set in an analogue of the Silk Road. The sad part is that, as much as I might want to, it is just not realistic for me to travel the Silk Road from one end to the other at present. Could I pull it off? Probably…but, holy shit, even for me that would be ratcheting up the danger and risk-taking to fairly silly levels.

That being said, I still want to do it. I want to do it pretty badly. I want to stand in the mountain passes of Pakistan, I want to visit the old trading cities in Iran, I want to skirt the edges of the Taklamakan Desert. Hell, I want to take a side-trip up to Lake Baikal, I want to see the mountains between the Black and Caspian seas, I want to walk on the endless steppes…

Yes, I can (and probably will) make up my own fantasy versions thereof, based on areas I’ve already been, but it’s not the same thing. Not the same thing at all.

Write what you know, they say.

Now, look…I can write (firsthand) about valleys and mountains that haven’t seen a human foot in centuries. I can write about cities and slums and street markets. I can write about forests where you can’t see two feet in front of you, and about rivers and gorges and canyons.  I can write, even, about camping on the edge of the world, and sailing off it.  But it’s not enough.

It’s never enough, by the way.

The best part of being a storyteller is also the worst: There’s always more to see, and to do. There’s always more to explore and experience. In the end, there’s always another adventure…

The 4 W’s: Where

Note — hmm, just got an idea to make this a (sorta) series.  The Who, What, Where and Why of a story…I’ll have to think about that one a bit, but I kinda like the idea.

I finished writing at the brewery the other day, then got into a conversation with some of the regulars. Now, these regulars are people I have known for a long time. They know me pretty well, and they have no hesitation about asking questions. Sometimes they ask a lot of questions.

Now, usually, those questions are pretty funny…but sometimes they actually get into more serious, substantive areas. Like whether Cascade hops are evil, or debating the relative merits of malty versus hoppy pilsners…

You know, the important stuff.

Oh yeah…and sometimes writing comes up, too.

Keep in mind: these are the people who got me to admit that my characters talk to me. As you might imagine, that particular little nugget still gets a ton of mileage in the taproom…

Well, the other day, one of those friends asked me about settings. “You make shit up, right?” he asked.

“Well…uhh…basically…” I stammered, still coming back to earth after a writing session.

“Where the fuck’s it come from? The weird sci-fi shit, I mean. The places, the atmosphere.”

Good question, that.

John Scalzi still has my favorite sci-fi quote of all time, and it fits for this topic just as it does for so many others {I’m paraphrasing from memory, mind you}: “They say you should write what you know. I write what no one knows.”

So…settings. My writing tends to be very visual, tends to focus on the immediate snapshot of a place. More than that, the look & feel of a place tend to focus very much on the contrast* inherent in the setting: the contrast of light and dark especially, but also those social and economic and personal contrasts that mean so much to my writing. I love dissonance in my settings just as much as in my characters…

*Remember, one of my “outside” loves is photography…mostly travel and nature stuff, but I will tackle almost any topic through a camera. When I take pictures, I intentionally look for the contrast in light & shadow…and also in subject matter. Those impulses, and that “eye” I use, affects my imagination and my writing a great deal.

The biggest settings are obviously made up out of whole cloth: from settled planets to FTL starships to massive space stations. These are the “big ideas”, the conceptual frameworks that hold together the “real” places where scenes actually take place (a room, a bar, a plaza, etc…). These “big things” are influenced by reality, but mostly just in terms of the feelings I want them to evoke:

Dockside was inspired/influenced by places like Marseille and Long Beach and Boston. Working ports with gritty, dangerous areas close beside areas of wealth and privilege.

The destroyer that is the centerpiece of an old “trunk novel” of mine (that may see the light of day in a completely re-worked fashion) was inspired/influenced by the old WW2 Fletcher-class destroyers…and by modern US nuclear subs.

But those are the “big things”, those are not the things of everyday settings and scenes…the places that help define the feeling of a story.

The smaller and more intimate places where the scenes take place, the “real” settings…well, they are based on places I know, on places & things that have had a very real affect on me.

Dockside’s res-holds are those tight, crowded, loud neighborhoods you see in Hong Kong and Manila and Bangkok and other massive Asian cities. But, and this is a big but, they also have a huge dose of the crowding and crime, and the grinding poverty, of the Brazilian favelas, as well as the southern European migrant “camps”.

A handful of scenes I am currently writing are set in one of the grimmest and most depressing places I can come up with: a place based on the old Soviet-era, Stalinist apartment blocks you can still find in central and eastern Europe’s old industrial areas. I once took a walk through one of these behemoths just a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall…and, well, holy shit. Let’s just say, to a kid who grew up in Southern California, there was no place more alien…nor more unsettling.

From small, crowded izakaya in Tokyo, to beach front clubs in Spain…

From huge, luxurious mansions to tiny, filthy apartments that aspire to be called “slums”…

From corporate boardrooms to back-alley drug dens…

Pretty much every setting I create has at least an inspiration, if not a very real basis, in real world places I have experienced. And that experience, that reality, is important to me: every setting I use is intended to evoke certain emotions, and to communicate certain things about the characters, and the particular plot points, involved in that scene.

I could never hope to communicate the emotion of an overwhelming, monolithic concrete apartment block — and it’s depressing central expanse of a concrete courtyard — had I never stood in the middle of just such a place and experienced its reality.

All that being said…my friend was right: I make shit up. I make a lot of shit up. But — and this is the important but — even the stuff I make up is built around certain nuggets of reality. Every place, every setting, that I use has to have a feeling to it — has to have an honesty — in order to support and serve the tone of the scene itself.

And, yes, before you ask: the taproom at “my” brewery has made its own appearance…

Micro vs. Macro; or, It’s Not The Size Of The Lens, It’s What You Do With It

I’m thinkin’ about themes, and the subtextual messages we (well, most of us) try to communicate in our writing.

Well…more precisely, I’m working on the underlying themes for a new & totally unrelated project, and that got me to thinking…

Now, starting to conceive and develop a new project (however slowly) when you’re only halfway through your current one may not be the smartest thing in the world…but no one ever accused me of being smart. Honestly, at this point the important part is that the new project gives me different dynamics and pacing to use.  It also, it must be said, gives me the opportunity to play with some themes & ideas that have no place in Connor & Oz’s universe.

But…the question that kept coming up in the back of my mind as I worked was this: just how do you know when you reached that saturation point?  How do you know when enough is enough?

Okay, okay…so, even I know the answer to that one (with thanks to Julia Child for this): “when it is done.”

Part of the answer, I think, is just what are those themes you are trying to communicate. There is a certain amount of room & latitude for the small lens — for the personal — but far more for thoughts and insights through a bigger lens.

Literature in general, and science fiction in particular, have always been around to communicate far more than they say. Hell, for at least a century, sci-fi has been the go-to resource for social and political commentary on the problems and events of, err, “today”.

Don’t believe me? Read Brave New World, or The Forever War, or War With The Newts…hell, go back to Wells’s Eloi and Morlochs. Nope, no message there, no light shining on his contemporary society…


Sorry, about that — almost got started on a rant…and a reading list that might never have ended.

If anything, I would argue that today’s sci-fi and fantasy don’t have enough to say about the “big things”. Oh, there are all kinds of stories in the small-scale, but the number of books that criticize and argue — err, effectively criticize and argue — about the biggest things just isn’t anywhere near as large as it could be.

And…well…I’m part of the problem. My current project (Connor & Oz) is very much at the micro end of the scale. It is focused on the personal problems — and growth — of a troubled kid who is very much at the wrong end of that old truism that “shit rolls downhill”.

Thinking about that, and about Connor’s story as it evolves and grows, has me looking — looking very hard — at those bigger elements and threads that I’ve included in the world-building, but haven’t actually developed.  It’s got me thinking, at least a little bit, at the macro end of the scale.

I can’t complain about folks not tackling the “big picture” stuff if I won’t do it, can I?


There are problems and challenges in the world today that just aren’t going away anytime soon — and certainly aren’t going away in the timeframe in which these stories take place (300-350ish years in the future). The trick and the challenge is to keep the focus tight and personal on my protagonist, but to use the end results and impacts of these issues on Connor to (hopefully) shine a light.

Oh, and before you ask: nope, the changes ain’t gonna make the tone any lighter. Repression & control, exploitation, elitism, the ever-present power of corruption and vice, and the willing heartlessness of “the many” that allows all that to prosper and grow…

Nope, not gonna get any lighter…but it will be fun*.

*And a hell of a lot of work.

I should probably add that Connor’s story was originally designed and intended to be purely personal, to be the reality of two kids who never had a chance. It is only lately that I’ve begun to think that, perhaps, looking at the universe through that small lens might not be enough…