Updated: May 29, 2021
How do you tell place? Its qualities, its circumference, its feel?
Easy answer: description.
Hard answer: description.
Here’s an example from Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884):
… then we set down on the sandy bottom where the water was about knee deep, and watched the daylight come. Not a sound, anywheres—perfectly still—just like the whole world was asleep, only sometimes the bull-frogs a-cluttering, maybe. The first thing to see, looking away over the water, was a kind of dull line—that was the woods on' t'other side—you couldn't make nothing else out; then a pale place in the sky; then more paleness, spreading around; then the river softened up, away off, and warn't black any more, but gray; you could see little dark spots drifting along, ever so far away—trading scows, and such things; and long black streaks—rafts; sometimes you could hear a sweep screaking; or jumbled up voices, it was so still, and sounds come so far; and by-and-by you could see a streak on the water which you know by the look of the streak that there's a snag there in a swift current which breaks on it and makes that streak look that way; and you see the mist curl up off of the water, and the east reddens up, and the river, and you make out a log cabin in the edge of the woods, away on the bank on t'other side of the river, being a wood-yard, likely, and piled by them cheats so you can throw a dog through it anywheres; then the nice breeze springs up, and comes fanning you from over there, so cool and fresh, and sweet to smell, on account of the woods and the flowers; but sometimes not that way, because they've left dead fish laying around, gars, and such, and they do get pretty rank; and next you've got the full day, and everything smiling in the sun, and the song-birds just going it! (135-136)
Long sentence that. Immersion in light, in sight, in sound, in touch, in smell, in words.
Perspective comes first: Huck and Jim “set down on the sandy bottom where the water was about knee deep” – that’s their starting point, our starting point, “looking away over the water.” We perceive the river through Huck’s senses, from his position, through his perspective. As “the daylight” slowly arrives, we hear – “Not a sound,” the “still[ness]” ruling the senses. A place to be heard. A place not to be heard.
Then comes sight: “The first thing to see … was a kind of dull line …; then a pale place in the sky; then more paleness, spreading around” – the narration takes place almost in real time, the words tracing each change in the colouring of the morning sky. The scene widens: our eyes, Huck’s eyes, fixed on the horizon. Feature by feature, the Mississippi landscape – “river,” “rafts,” “wood-yard” – emerges out of the darkness.
There is more hearing.
“[T]hen the nice breeze springs up.” More senses: touch – and smell. Eventually, it is those smells that break the charm: “so cool and fresh, and sweet to smell, on account of the woods and the flowers; but sometimes not that way, because they've left dead fish laying around, gars, and such, and they do get pretty rank.”
Finally, there’s sound again, the “song-birds” celebrating the arrival of the morning, “full day”: “just going it!”
Almost as a painter with a brush – which, of course, he occasionally was –, Twain carefully “paints a picture” of the morning scene by the river: colour for colour, moment for moment, sensation for sensation.
But this is only one of many ways of telling place – here’s a quite different example:
Several nerve-racking days later, they found the place. It looked like a normal island – beaches, hills, trees, etc. – but Delos wasn’t attached to the earth. It floated on the waves like a giant life preserver, drifting around the Mediterranean, occasionally pinballing off other islands or running over unsuspecting whales. (Riordan, “Apollo Sings and Dances and Shoots People” n.p.)
Quite a different mood, quite a different scene. In Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Greek Gods (2014) the island is evoked by a few simple words: “beaches, hills, trees, etc.” It’s less a description than the evocation of a cliché: “etc.”
But it works.
If the reading of Twain’s description comes close to an immersive, full-body experience, the reading of Riordan’s is a sketch – no less effective, no less immediate, but a sketch, nevertheless. Maybe it requires more work on the reader’s side, because they have to imagine the “etc.” Maybe less so, because they do not have to imagine any detailed multisensory description – which would be out of place in Riordan’s book anyway. It’s never about “real” places, it’s about reimagined mythical places – the places in Percy Jackson and the Greek Gods literally place us in the story. Quickly, immediately, effortlessly. Tone trumps description. But then the tone is what Riordan’s writing is all about.
Here’s a third example:
They were in Eddie’s parents’ bedroom, which was very dark and dingy and had no furniture in it except for a large double bed, an even larger wardrobe and thirty-two different types of chair designed to make you sit straight even if your wrists were handcuffed to your ankles. (Ardagh 1-2)
Very different kind of place, similar tone. In Philip Ardagh’s Awful End (2000) – the first part of The Eddie Dickens Trilogy – an interior space, the bedroom of the protagonist’s parents, is described. (There’s an illustration, too – as is in the Twain text – if you're curious: go buy the books!) The novel is set in the Victorian era, Dickens’ era. Hence, many readers will have a relatively good idea of what such a place might look like. Period drama and such.
But Ardagh doesn’t stop there.
He plays with this cliché. First, by establishing the idea of a Victorian master bedroom – “very dark and dingy” with “no furniture in it except for a large double bed” –, then, by breaking with it. The 'grand' room, seemingly empty of “furniture,” suddenly fills up: there’s “an even larger wardrobe and thirty-two different types of chair.” In half a sentence, the bedroom’s crammed. And quite uncomfortable: “designed to make you sit straight even if your wrists were handcuffed to your ankles.” By introducing this (not un-Victorian) grotesque detail, the cliché place acquires an uniqueness.
Ardagh does both: he evokes the cliché, the symbolic place, only to then break with it and create a specific place out of its ruins. Riordan effectively relies on the cliché. Twain creates his own world – his own world of the river that becomes symbolic for the story he tells.
There may be many more ways of telling place, specific and symbolic. Maybe there are other categories, too. But they all seem connected to perspective, to tone – which may also be a kind of perspective –, to function. How does who look at what? And what happens to the “what” in the process?
How do you tell place?
Easy answer: description.
Hard answer: description.
Ardagh, Philip. “Awful End.” The Eddie Dickens Trilogy, Faber and Faber, 2011.
Riordan, Rick. Percy Jackson and the Greek Gods. 2014. Puffin Books, 2015.
Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. 1884. Norton, 1999.