Sunday, July 08, 2007

Sense of Place

On Canada Day, I meant to post a link to this column that we’ve lost another little bit of our Canadian identity.

However, Christa’s recent thread on Crimespace, A Sense of Place, has had me thinking about what it is that creates a sense of place in a novel, and even what gives a country a sense of identity, and gave me an excuse to throw the link up now.

Christa touches on her childhood, moving around a lot. I think that’s actually something real and significant that doesn’t always translate to novels well. There are a lot of people who do not have a sense of identity linked to one particular place because they were never there long enough to feel connected. And in a unique way, that disconnect shapes their lives. Some seek stability, pick a place, settle down and never move again. And some never feel at home anywhere. That background experience does just as much to shape how they see the world as being born and raised in one local for all or most of the formative years can. I actually think that bringing a character in as an outsider to a local is an interesting way to see the place.

On the other hand, when someone has lived in a place for a long time, they have a sense of the history of the place in a way that others don’t. I don’t think anyone going to Ireland today for the first time can fully appreciate how much the country has changed in the last twenty years alone. Earlier today I was talking to my boss about the experience of seeing the Berlin Wall come down years ago. We were talking about books that have been updated and changed to be politically correct, and the one children’s series we were discussing bothered me a bit. By changing characters in the story to make it conform to present times, we lose a sense of time in those books. I wonder about that. Should we say that because we don’t agree with how people were treated then, nobody should read Uncle Tom’s Cabin?

That conversation really got me thinking about all of this, again.

I don’t think a sense of place is all about geography. It’s about attitudes. For example, I’ve lived in three provinces and (including Canada) I guess you could say five countries in my lifetime. Anywhere I was long enough to have a mailing address.

There are distinctly different politics and economics that come with different locales, even within a country. British Columbia, Canada, has a long history of voting provincial NDP and is a heavily union-based province by comparison to Alberta, Canada. Alberta has a long history of voting Conservative. (Highly generalized, but) in BC there’s more of a health and environmental focus. In Alberta, there are plenty of people with the No Kyoto/Wheat Board/Gun Registry bumper sticker on their vehicles. Some joke BC is our California while Alberta is our Texas. (Of course, they don’t joke about that loudly.) I stumbled across this perspective on Alberta stereotypes that was kind of funny, but it tells you something about how people outside of the province see it.

I do think that, to some degree, your perspective on a place will come through in your writing if you use it as the setting. It’s hard for me to wrap my head around the new Ireland, as much as I read about it, because my own experience was at a different point in time. This also explains why sometimes, people who immigrate end up retaining a sense of cultural identity that doesn’t even really exist in the place they left – that culture has continued to evolve over time, but by removing themselves yet retaining their traditional practices, many who live elsewhere don’t experience the same evolution. Of course, that’s a general comment as well. It happens with some, but certainly not all who move from one country to another.

I personally think traveling does a person a world of good when it comes to understanding culture and identity and what gives a sense of place. In my own experience, living overseas for a chunk of time opened my eyes and allowed me to see Canada differently, good and bad. In general, Europeans have a high appreciation for Canada, so it’s easy to think of how nicely we’re viewed. It could even be easy to feel smug about that. But I was young, and I remember seeing some of the poverty and destitution in some of the places I went to and being so shocked by it. It wasn’t until I returned to Canada that I started seeing that in my own environment. It’s easy for us to filter things out, not always notice what’s right there in front of us (especially when we’re teenagers).

I know that people have different viewpoints on the merits/issues of grounding your story with a sense of time. For myself, I like the idea that a book becomes a time capsule. (Sure, there are books where this is not as important.) It’s impossible to touch on technology and not make your book somewhat dated. By the time books often are released there’s such a gap from them being written that software and systems have often changed, not to mention vehicles, economics and political factors.

But all of that mixes in a book to give it a sense of cultural identity. I don’t think it’s easy to separate one thing from the other. Ontario in 1990 felt a lot different than Ontario in 1984, and a big part of the reason was the impact of the recession coupled with the GST, and business after business closing their doors. There was a sense of desperation in the early 90s that has no doubt since faded as the economy has recovered. I don’t think it would be possible to accurately reflect the place without touching on the attitudes of the time.

Of course, since I also favour books that make social commentary, it’s impossible to separate out the time factor.

If I can get my act together, I might wade into the Crimespace discussion. But if you haven’t checked it out, it’s always interesting to see the differing perspectives on how people approach these things in their own work.

And at the risk of contradicting myself, I think less is often more. I’m still one who leans to the idea that what you include about personal history/geography should have a relationship to the story. That doesn’t mean you don’t describe it to some degree, but you have to be careful about overdoing it. And, as with most things, it’s a delicate balance.


Anonymous said...

Hey Sandra-someone should tell that guy a chesterfield is a cigarette, not a couch. Man, you Canadians have lots of stuff backwards. The pop thing is okay-that's what I drink too.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Ha ha. Maybe the fact that I can sit on a chesterfield suggests to you that I'm the evil twin of Thumbelina.

Anonymous said...

I won't even suggest what your butt must be made of.

Chris said...

I had no idea 'chesterfield' was a common Canadian term; Chandler routinely uses it in his fiction, and that's the only place I've come across it. If you say 'doxy' and 'bulls' and 'heaters' and 'jake' as well, I'm SO moving.

Incidentally, I think your word-verification thingy is a bit of a rabble-rouser: there are three, count 'em three, Zs in my word. That's 'Zee' from where I'm sitting, but what the hell do I know?

Christa M. Miller said...

Thanks for the shout-out, Sandra. I didn't talk about this much on the thread, but I really struggle with setting. I set my novel in the NH town where I lived for 11 years as a teen/young adult. Still, as you pointed out, there are truisms about a place that teens don't notice. I have very general random observations about these places I haven't lived in for 10 years, like the change in demographics to reflect people who work in Boston but live further and further away. Along with the fact that development has tried to accommodate them, and thus pushed out lower income people (college students, blue collar families, etc.).

Still - my protags are cops working a stressful murder case. How much of this stuff would they really think or talk about? I tried inserting a few aspects and they were sooooo awkward. Then I went back and re-read some Julia Spencer-Fleming. Somehow she can literally do driving directions and make them seamless - along with the small-town political stuff you mention.

So that's why I started that thread - try to figure out how I can get around these problems! (I guess I should post this comment there too, then...)

Sandra Ruttan said...

Yeah, it's probably time to stop that conversation Norby!

Chris, in truth, I'm not sure how common it is now. Sofa is so much shorter to say, and you know how lazy people are.

I can say doxy, bulls, heaters and jake. In Alberta, there are always bulls for sale.

And I hate word verification. If it wasn't for evil spammers, it wouldn't be on.

Christa, I don't know how people can do driving directions. I definitely lean on the 'less is more' there. But then, I can map read and dictate when driving, but if it's abstract with no visual it's like someone asking me to do complex math in my head without writing it down. I actually can do that, but it frustrates me because I'm out of practice. (I'm not an auditory learner, so that doesn't help, although I can memorize whole conversations and recite them if I'm inspired to do so. Weird, eh?)

I think you'll be fine with your ms. Stick to what's essential for the framework of the story. And look at Bruen - how does he do it?

Anonymous said...

Actually Sandra, when it comes to little things that make a region individual, I don't think they ever die. There will always be someone who says chesterfield instead of couch. How do I know? My grandma still occasionally calls her couch a davenport-why? I have no idea, but my grandpa called that too and oddly enough the name will pop in my head. I've never used in conversation, but I know about it.

She also calls her purse her pocketbook, so there are some things that will live on I guess.

The soda/pop/sodapop/cola/coke thing is a huge debate here in the US depending on where you are. That's the thing about language that this journalist doesn't seem to get-it's fluid, it's always changing. Fifty years from now his kids will be complaining the loss of some word or turn of phrase that they grew up with that they feel is completely Canadian. Eh?

Anonymous said...

I love this whole couch/davenport/chesterfield/sofa
/settee discussion(and yes I remember hearing all of them)and what is funnier than the pop/soda/coke one is for me as a Canadian to ask nicely in a restaurant where the washrooms are and I am met with a blank stare...opps sorry restrooms and I have a friend who routinely calls her purse a pocketbook...another Canadianism is asking for a napkin at dinner instead of serviette usually ends in weird looks also

Sandra Ruttan said...

Patricia, for some reason I now have Kim Mitchell's "Might as Well Go For A Soda" running through my head. Curses. I may have to lie on the chesterfield and watch some tele to get it out.

Anonymous said...

I've always wanted to write a crime series novel featuring a woman. Living in St Albans, Melbourne, which is also where I set my young adult novel makes me realise it's the perfect place to write a crime novel. It seems like most of the crime that happens in my area, or is it only that the media focuses in on us because of the socio-economic stereotypes. Will check out the discussion on crimespace. Sounds intersting.

Sandra Ruttan said...

"or is it only that the media focuses in on us because of the socio-economic stereotypes."

Interesting question. I used to live in New Westminster. The river and the dark line at the top are the city borders, so if you look at this you'll see being a victim of some types of crime is really an equal opportunity experience there. Yet certain areas are written up as worse than others, and I guess they are. I chose not to live two blocks from where the working girls... work.

Sounds like you have an interesting idea for a series, though.

Peter Rozovsky said...

It's no surprise Chandler used chesterfield. Even if the term was not current in the U.S. when he was writing, Chandler was educated in England. One of the strange things for me as a Canadian living in the U.S. is that people here think entrée means main course.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"