Place Matters

[img_assist|nid=841|title=Aimee Labrie|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=104|height=121]Last year, I was asked to write a short story for the Akashic Book noir series—this is the series where each volume is dedicated to noir stories that take place in particular neighborhoods in a particular city. They’ve done books set in Barcelona, Haiti, Milan, Brooklyn, and the latest version, the one that that I was involved with, is Philadelphia Noir.  Since I live in South Philadelphia, I was asked to set my story in that location (some of the other neighborhoods included are Rittenhouse Square, Fishtown, Centre City).  The story, then, also needed to be a clear reflection of that section of the city, since setting was part of the hook.

Though I am a transplant from the Midwest, I’ve lived in Philadelphia for six years and South Philly for the last four years. I know parts of it as well as a non-native can. However, when I sat down to write the story, I realized that I don’t usually use setting as a central figure in my fiction. My stories are about quirky people who have difficulty connecting to others, and while the stories are set in Chicago or Florida or Nebraska, I never gave much thought to how place can impact how a story unfolds. Now, I had to figure out a way to insinuate the setting without being too heavy-handed.

During this time, I was also trying to buy a house in South Philly, so I was spending a lot of time walking around strangers’ living rooms, peering into their bathrooms, seeing what they kept in the fridge, trying on their clothes, etc. It was a voyeur’s dream; this chance to see how other people lived. I kept being shown a certain type of house, what I came to think of as the South Philly Catholic Italian Grandma House.

You would find a few of the same things in these houses: dark wood paneling, uncomfortable-looking sofas and chairs wrapped in protective plastic, and tons of religious iconography—Virgin Mary portraits over the toilet, toddler Jesus’ on top of the TV, crucifixes, saints—everything short of a confessional.  The best thing I saw was very realistic-looking oil rendering of Jesus, Pope John Paul, II, and John F. Kennedy standing together like the Three Musketeers. As it turned out, when I sat down to write my South Philadelphia noir story, the Grandma House became the setting for the main conflict. And, as I was working through what happened, the house and the objects in it gave me a way to further the plot and to get my character saved. I’d never done that in my writing before; stopped to really look at the room my character’s standing in to see how the things in it can be part of her experience and part of the story.

Here’s how it worked: the main character gets kidnapped by a local Philly man named Tony. He knocks her out, and she awakens to find herself tied to a chair in the middle of one of these plastic-encased living rooms (I even added in the aforementioned Jesus, JFK, and Pope painting). She realizes that she’s in Tony’s family home at about the same time she sees that Tony’s walking around in his socks. She makes the correct assumption that he isn’t allowed to wear his shoes in the house; he has to protect the carpet. So, she asks him to untie her, saying that she really, really needs to use the bathroom. He refuses, until she threatens to pee herself, mentioning too that in the process, she’ll probably ruin the chair she’s sitting in and the carpet around it. Tony panics; he doesn’t want to make a mess in his ma’s living room. He relents, and the character goes into the bathroom. She searches for a weapon, and finds a giant Virgin Mary statue, which she subsequently puts to violent use, thereby gaining her freedom (and ruining the carpet in the process).

Not a great story, but it fit the genre. And it was a new experience to find myself writing the whole piece with my mind on place—to completely use the city and the people you might find in it and then the particular home to fuel the narrative action.

So, the next time you sit down to write, I suggest taking a few pages to get a sense of what surrounds your character. Even if you don’t use it in the final story, it’s useful to know the physical surroundings of your character. What city/town does she live in? What might you see on the curb outside of her house? What businesses are around her place?  What trees line her street? And then, get in even closer. What kind of plates does she eat off of? If you looked in her closet, what would you discover stashed behind her boots? What is stashed away in the basement or attic? In the process, I believe you will discover that place can be a powerful fictional element to enhance and even move forward your story.  

Aimee LaBrie is an award-winning author and teaches a fiction workshop for Philadelphia Stories.

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