Thursday, June 24, 2010

Place in fiction

You know already if you read my last couple of blog posts that I was in Providence, RI last week on business. At the end of the Project Bamboo workshop I helped to lead, I went for a swim at the local YMCA. Just what the doctor ordered. I took the bus up the hill, had a swim, and strolled back downtown along a route recommended by one of the YMCA staff.

Skimming Providence

A few blocks along I passed the Olney Street Baptist Church. At the corner of the property a plaque was set in the lawn commemorating the Olney Street Riot of 1831. I knew nothing of Olney Street, little of Providence, and less of 1831 ... but my curiosity was piqued. I write about politics, I've seen a riot or two in my time, I was interested to know just what happened on that very spot some hundred eighty years ago.

The Brown University Library has an on-line exhibit that describes the Olney Street Riot and provides an eyewitness account in the form of a letter to his father from one John A.C. Randall. The letter is dated 25 September 1831:
"Last Wednesday night, some disturbance taking place in Olney’s Lane, a sailor, a young promising fellow, 2d mate of the Ann & Hope, who was in search of the cook of the ship with two or three others, was shot dead from a house occupied by negroes, and the rest wounded. The alarm spread rapidly, and a large company assembled, and tore down the house and one or two other small ones, occupied by negroes. The next night, the moon shining bright, an immense multitude gathered in the Lane, and began to show signs of tearing down more houses. The Governor, Sheriff and all the watchmen were on the spot ready to prevent it, if they could. The first who commenced, were immediately seized by the Sheriff and watchmen, who succeeded in holding only two of them, after hard fighting; the mob then burst forward, and drove all the watchmen off, and commenced pulling down all the bad houses in the Lane. They stationed sentinels, and went to work as busy as bees, first pulling down the chimney, and then with a fire hook and plenty of axes and iron bars tearing down the buildings and pulling them into the streets. The air was so still, and the weather so pleasant that Elisha tells me he could hear them talk when he was at the mill. The whole street was full of spectators, a great many of whom were cheering the mob every time a house fell. About 11 o’clock the Governor ordered out the 1st Infantry, and they marched up the Lane, but the mob stopped work and surrounded them, throwing stones at them, hissing and hooting, &c. Several of them were badly wounded by the stones, and they had to retreat. As soon as they were gone, they began work again, and leveled 8 or 9 buildings with the ground. They then marched over to Snowtown, and tore down two or three houses there, breaking windows in others. It was then near 4 in the morning, and they dispersed."

Because I am not directly wired to the intertubes (I don't even carry an iPhone), I didn't find all that out on the spot. I took note of the plaque, and continued down the hill.

The route recommended to me by the woman at the Y was a good one. The quiet streets of the College Hill neighborhood were lined with tall old trees populated with warbling, orange-breasted birds. Boxy nineteenth century houses were shaded by these great trees, many of the residences crowned with dormer windows and marked by plaques indicating for whom the home was originally built, and when. It was a settled-in neighborhood, a neighborhood with a past. I came to Prospect Terrace Park, overlooking the city center, the site of the statue and tomb of Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island. A preacher, Williams shaped the growth of the then-colony "through its acceptance of settlers of all religious persuasions," according to a brief biography on a site maintained by his descendants; as Wikipedia tells it, he was "the first American proponent of religious freedom and the separation of church and state."

I don't think my social studies classes covered Roger Williams when I was in grade school. I didn't realize the statue in the park represented him because I didn't know who he was, let alone that dust from Williams' grave is interred beneath the statue -- and I didn't get any of that figured out until I had a chance to do some on-line research. Once I returned home I also did some nosing around in a couple of the field guides I keep handy; I believe the birds I noticed were Baltimore Orioles. They sang a lovely song.

All in all, it was a nice walk, but I would hesitate before setting a story in Providence. My knowledge and experience is too thin.

Rendering San Francisco

My current novel project is called Consequence, and much of it takes place in San Francisco. A collective of political activists at the core of Consequence live in the Duboce Triangle, a neighborhood in the geographical heart of the city. The building where the collective makes its home is roughly modeled on a building near Duboce Park, one owned by old friends and housemates. I've been in the neighborhood many times, over many years, in every season, weather condition, and hour. Once or twice I was even in the vicinity for a police riot. While I have taken certain liberties -- adding a corner store here, pumping up the vibrancy of a street scene there -- I am confident that the city I describe bears a close resemblance to the actual neighborhoods depicted in my fiction.

Recently one of the owners of my model-building asked if he could read Consequence in typescript. M-- is an old friend, he's been a friend for nearly half my life, and I was interested in his take for a lot of reasons: because I've been 'borrowing' his home for all the years Consequence has been gestating; because M-- and I have done a fair bit of political work together; because he's a very sharp reader (we almost never like the same books ... but it's great fun to argue our often diametrically opposed opinions).

M-- gave me some terrific feedback, but the bits I want to point out here have to do with place. He lives in the neighborhood in which much of my novel occurs, and I don't. He's there pretty much every day, and has been for more than a decade. I'm not, and haven't been. So there were a number of details in my draft that rang false for him. That street scene I portrayed with enhanced vibrancy? Nope, it's not like that, he said. The way I describe the location of the collective's home in relation to the borders of the neighborhood? Not quite right. The 22 Fillmore bus route? It travels north-south, from the outskirts of the city to a neighborhood closer to the center, but people don't say that it goes "downtown" as one of my characters thought to himself.

I think his comments were mostly on the mark. Not surprising, M-- lives closer to the place my novel is set than I do. And some of his complaints will motivate me to nip, tuck, and otherwise improve my portrayal of place in Consequence -- in some cases I already have.

But I do think that some of the details that struck M-- as oh-so-wrong are not going to matter once readers get their hands on this novel. Some of the details of place that I wrote ring true within the novel's frame, even if they deviate from the precise character of the Duboce Triangle, or from M--'s experience or perception of his neighborhood. For most readers of Consequence, the Duboce Triangle will remain a fictional construct. And that's okay by me.

What everybody else says

I'm far from the first to write about place in fiction. I'm may not even be among the first hundred-thousand. Just last month, my favorite agent-who-blogs, Nathan Bransford, wrote a post on What Makes a Great Setting. Two out of the three books about writing fiction that I keep nearest to my keyboard include chapters on place: The Gotham Writers' Workshop Writing Fiction ("Setting and Pacing: I'm here, therefore I am"); and Noah Lukeman's The First Five Pages ("Setting").

I don't think the topic has been exhausted. In fact, I have every intention of coming back to it. It supports further musing and new examination, by writers and readers both.

In that light, I wonder what you have to say about places you know through fiction. If you're a reader, how important is a novel's rendering of place to your experience? Do you care whether an author is accurate in her portrayal of places that are passed off as 'real'? Always, or only sometimes? If you're a writer, how close do you like to stick to places you know deeply? How comfortable are you writing about places you know only superficially, or through research?

Thanks toWill Hart for the photo of the Roger Williams statue in Prospect Terrace Park (CC BY 2.0).

1 comment:

  1. nice and no if its internally true who will care ?you can become a slave to the fact curiosity is more psychchological/power related.can you, knowing whats "wrong" leave it as it is?
    love this piece steve...