The Relationship between Scenery & Place to Storytelling & Character
By: Nina Romano
Scenery is the natural features of a landscape considered in terms of their appearance, especially when picturesque. Place is the setting or the environment in which a story or event occurs. I think of these terms as almost interchangeable. Place is the setting, which provides the backdrop to the story and helps create mood.
Setting can include specific information about time and place. Breaking it down: setting is scenery, time and place. Setting is the context in which story or scene occurs and includes the time, place, and social environment. It is important to establish a setting in your story, or the piece you’re writing so your readers can visualize and experience it.
Scenery and Place should be integral parts of novel or short story however they may also be incorporated into almost any piece of writing—certainly biography, memoir and poetry.
These two narrative techniques, scenery and place, not only root the story in a particular locale, but these elements should become a character in their own right. The descriptions used for Scenery and Place should enhance the narrative to augment and heighten the understanding of the character’s motives and actions.
John Dufresne, my friend and mentor, in his book about writing fiction, The Lie That Tells a Truth says that: “Place connects characters to a collective and personal past, and so place is the emotional center of story. And by place, I don’t simply mean location. A location is a dot on the map, a set of coordinates. Place is location with narrative, with memory and imagination, with history. We transform a location into a place by telling its stories.”
Basically what John is saying here is to make your locations do double work in writing—they can be a source of memory, pleasant or painful. The location can become an extension of character, or a jumping off place for new ideas and cognitive thinking for the character. You, as writers, determine how much or how little you want to devote to expanding location’s function. But I’ve always found that the more you paint the location, the more it enriches the work. For the reader this widens the panorama of the story or poem to make it more visual.
The best way to show what I’m talking about is to give examples from my work. The first one will be from a novel and the second one from a short story.
In my novel, The Secret Language of Women, I used the Boxer Rebellion as a back-drop for the novel and since it occurred in China, I used China as the country of birth for the main character Lian, a Eurasian healer of mixed blood—her father is Swiss and her mother is Chinese.
For the main male character Giacomo, the Italian sailor who falls in love with Lian, I used descriptions of places in China and the scenery of China to augment his feelings for Lian, so that we get to see him falling in love with China, which is representational and emblematic of Lian.
Let me say one thing about blogs, articles and workshops—I’ve attended many and I’ve always geared whatever was being discussed towards whatever I was writing—whether or not it was fiction, poetry, or memoir. You just apply what’s being presented to your own work. Take what you need and leave the rest. If you’re not a writer, you can also use the information presented to help expand your reading pleasure.
I’m going to cite a little section from two different spots in my novel about my main male character Giacomo and his ship, the Leopardo, which means Leopard in English.
The Secret Language of Women by Nina Romano
Chapter 6 Tianshi 天使 Angel
The Leopardo sailed its way from Hong Kong to Macau, where they took on provisions.
The protected light cruiser, the SMS Irene, had been in Hong Kong at the same time having their engine refitted, and followed the Leopardo towards Macau.
Subsequent to a two week stay in Macau, the Leopardo headed north to Shanghai, and from there toward Wuhan along the Yangtze. The Italian ship wasn’t the only gunboat to be controlling the waterways for demonstrations, outbreaks of unrest, or signs of revolution. They were in a convoy with a German ship, the small cruiser SMS Cormoran, also patrolling the river.
The ships parted ways when the Leopardo stopped for a few days at Hangkow and the next day set underway again. The trip was leisurely, passing many towns and villages, stopping at places with interesting names like Fengdu, the City of Ghosts. Giacomo toured the temples, the statues so life-like in their resemblance of the dead that it gave him pause. Lt. Rinaldi had been here before and told Giacomo not to fret, because as the legend went: the dead go to Fengdu, but the devil goes to hell.
After Fengdu, the ship meandered, maneuvering beneath the high cliffs and luscious, verdant hills. Giacomo couldn’t imagine warlords were causing an upheaval a few days from here upriver. The spectacular scenic views of these imposing ravines and canyons made Giacomo feel insignificant. The steep rock precipices bordered the Qutang and Wu Gorges, where lofty crests and crags were mist-covered, making them seem otherworldly. Overhangs and rock canyons jutted out far over the water, as if to give each other a handshake. Others hung back, awaiting some supercilious god to push them into the chasm below. The valleys and ravines were speckled with pagodas. The silence at sunrise made Giacomo feel at one with nature and the God of all things and he thought of his beloved Lian. Breathtaking was the only word that came to his mind as he ducked into the galley to prepare the morning’s meal.
A little later on there’s this passage where we see Giacomo again falling in love with China, which is representational of Lian, the girl he loves, and causes him to remember her:
After all the preparations were set out in order, he stepped out onto the deck to have a look at the water and the sky. Leaning on the guardrail, he breathed in the scents of people cooking on the backs of their sampans. A young girl, scrubbing clothes, looked up at his sailing ship. It must have seemed an immense monstrosity to her. He smiled at her, but she looked down immediately, and for a fleeting moment, he wondered if it could have been Lian. His girl in the garden. Would he ever think of her as anything but that? He patted the shirt pocket above his heart—a girl who wrote to him in a secret tongue. If he closed his eyes, he could conjure her—hear her hesitant step as she came toward him; see the small, nimble body approach. He inhaled deeply and the scent of her freshly washed hair filled his nostrils; his lips quivered with wanting to taste her kiss again—a spasm of longing rippled through his loins. He relived the night of their first lovemaking, and wished he’d taken the girl of his dreams over and over. What chance was there of ever seeing her again now that he was so far from the capital, traveling the rivers of China? If he ever saw her again he would protect her with his life.
There was something his mother used to say about wanting and wishing. We make our own destinies, and if we desire some such thing so much, it can become a reality. How can that be, he’d asked. His mother had answered, Because God in His infinite mercy can read our thoughts and hearts, and takes pity on us when we beg, plead and pray. Such faith. He sat on the deck steps and thought about Lian with the surprised look on her face, her startled, shimmering eyes, green as wet magnolia leaves in spring.
So what’s going on here? What do we understand with the places and scenery that Giacomo is witnessing? Towns, valleys, a peaceful and tranquil existence before the storm of war.
Here are some particulars:
- “The spectacular scenic views of these imposing ravines and canyons made Giacomo feel insignificant”
When you’re in love you adore the person and will sacrifice for them—your own desires become insignificant to theirs.
2. Temples and pagodas. Giacomo feels at one with nature and God because of Lian
We now see Giacomo, a sailor who was out for fun, having elevated thoughts about nature and God through or due to his love for Lian.
3. “Leaning on the guardrail, he breathed in the scents of people cooking on the backs of their sampans. A young girl, scrubbing clothes, looked up at his sailing ship. It must have seemed an immense monstrosity to her.”
Everything about Chinese life is now becoming interesting to him—even sampan living.
The girl looks up and sees an “immense monstrosity”—we saw earlier in the novel that Giacomo dwarfed Lian. He’s gaining a sense of the introspective. Now he’s becoming aware of things he never thought of before. And of course, the girl on the sampan reminds him of his beloved.
The next example is from my short story “Megan’s Shadow” in the collection, The Other Side of the Gates. This story is set in Ireland where the scenery and place impact the development of the character’s clearly, but also effect the tone and mood of the story.
Here is a section from: “Megan’s Shadow.”
The rain ceased. Ryan stopped the car on the gravel path, parked and we got out. We’d been so silent in the car, a silence fringed with a blast of cold, heart-of-winter air off the Irish sea dark as the rocky headlands falling into it.
We walked out to the edge of the overlook, and there, with the roiling sea below us, I said, “I can’t stay with you anymore, Ryan. I’ll shrivel up inside.”
He didn’t speak. He thrust his hands deep into his pockets. His chestnut hair looked black in the fading light. A breeze riffled his hair to touch his shoulders covered in the Aran sweater I’d knitted him for his birthday. I remembered asking my mother about a dream I’d had about long hair. She’d told me to beware, for it meant a break.
Now the wind blew across his face. I loved that face, the cut of his strong jaw with the cleft. His determined, chameleon eyes changed with every mood. They were slate gray as he faced me now, yet those same eyes were green as emeralds when he spoke love to me.
“I don’t take a breath without worrying about you,” I said. “I’m afraid each time you leave, you won’t come back. I’m going to lose you to a bloody cause I don’t even believe in.”
The wind gusted, gathering force like my raw words. “The truth is, Ryan, you’re more in love with the IRA than you ever could be with me.”
He pulled his hands from his pockets so fast, I thought he’d strike me. “What about you
then? Your bleeding books, your fecking poetry and prizes?”
“You swore to me. You’ve made your choice.”
“You live in a fantasy world. No way you’re going to fix us Irish with language.”
“As if your killings and bombings will. My goal isn’t to mend Ireland or the world—I want a loving relationship. Built on trust. I can’t live like this. You don’t care who you destroy. You’ve become hard. Your passion consumes you—you’ve changed.”
“Change is it? I saw change coming in you, but I stuck to you, I’d lay down my
life for you, but I can’t change myself to fit your pretty whims.”
“I want to write poetry, not your epitaph.” I pushed wind-strewn hair off my face.
“I’m too mean to die, too damned ornery to get popped.”
“You don’t have a protective shield around you. Remember the old proverb: The bad deed turns on its doer. You think God listens to my prayers for a murderer of innocents?”
“I hate what happened. It was an accident that woman got killed. People die in war.” He picked up a stone and hurled it over the cliff.
“Not if you don’t fight,” I said. “Poor soul. Only in her thirties, a mother of two, for pity’s sake.”
“Megan, please. I’ve recriminations enough in my own heart.”
A terse silence ensued. Then I whispered, “I’m leaving you. I’m going back to the States where I belong. I never should’ve come back.”
“Oh, now that’s grand, Meggie. So, after all, it’s come to a halt then? I expected your anger, but not this. I believe in us—thought we could work it out—but I never dreamed you’d trash us.”
I wanted to pull him into my arms. I wasn’t prepared for the hurt I saw mist his eyes. “If I stay, all I’ll have is ashes and death or the fear of it in my mouth every time you walk out the door. What a comfort—that and the knowledge that I’ll never know how it feels to make love to your aging body. I’m away from you, Ryan, but this time—”
“You realize what you’re throwing away?”
Foolish woman that I am I got back in the car with him. We stayed at a wreck of an abandoned farmhouse with just mice for company, and God forgive me, with the excuse of the raw, bone-chilling dampness, we made sweet love.
Here are some examples of Scenery and Place in this story and how they relate to Storytelling & Character.”
It’s cold—the weather is symbolic of the two people, Megan and Ryan drifting apart.
The roiling sea—is a way of seeing Ryan’s character, which is turbulent and disquieted.
The relationship is tempest-tossed—we get that in the weather and descriptions all around.
This is a couple who love each other but each wants something different from the relationship. What does Megan want? To love Ryan but for him to be safe and out of the IRA
What about Ryan? What kind of guy is he? What does he want? He wants her despite the danger. He’s a risk-taker and willing to have her as long as he can.
For further study, a fine example of what I’ve been explaining is Jack London’s story, “To Build a Fire.” It’s available on Google: http://storyoftheweek.loa.org/2011/02/to-build-fire.html
I’m used to teaching seminars and workshops and therefore I have prepared some questions to utilize when dissecting the material you’re writing to see if it’s working. The following are important ideas and questions to ask in order to see if Scenery and Place are an active part of your fiction or nonfiction.
WHO is the scene about? Which character(s)?
WHY is he/she doing whatever it is? The purpose. The character’s motivation driving it.
WHERE are we in the novel? Root the character in a place. Describe: the scenery.
WHEN is the scene taking place? Time of day? Season? How does this influence the character or the entire scene?
WHAT is the character doing? Give him/her an activity.
State the character’s WANT in this scene.
What is he/she thinking about while performing the task?
What actions, objects, sights, smells or any other senses used for this scene have greater significance for the character beyond what they represent at present to expand his/her plight or desire?
What does he imagine? Does he think of a past memory, or envision a future time?
To conclude, consider Scenery and Place as extensions of the characters and utilize them in meaningful ways to enhance the character’s personality and to broaden the scope of the story. Good luck with your writing!
Nina Romano earned a B.S., an M.A. a B.A. and an M.F.A. She has published a collection of short stories, The Other Side of the Gates, five poetry collections, two poetry chapbooks, a collaborative book on writing, entitled: Writing in a Changing World, and has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize.
Nina Romano’s Wayfarer Trilogy was published from Turner Publishing. All three novels were finalists in book contests and The Secret Language of Women won Gold Medal in the Independent Publisher’s 2016 IPPY Book Award.
Her newest novel, The Girl Who Loved Cayo Bradley, has been released from Prairie Rose Publications.
Connect with the Author
Amazon: The Girl Who Loved Cayo Bradley
Amazon: The Secret Language of Women
Amazon: Lemon Blossoms
Amazon: In America
The Other Side of the Gates, a collection of short stories (author has new copies)
Amazon: 12 x 5 STAR Customer Reviews
Amazon: Cooking Lessons (poems)
Amazon: Coffeehouse Meditations (poems) (author has new copies)
Amazon: She Wouldn’t Sing at My Wedding (poems) (author has new copies)
Amazon: Faraway Confections (poems)
Amazon: Westward: Guided by Starfalls and Moonbows (poems)