Saturday, August 17, 2013



Writing in Place, Hub City’s weekend symposium held at Wofford College each year, serves to focus writers on place and its influence on plot and character. What would Sherlock Holmes and Charles Dickens have been without London? or Faulkner without Yoknapatawpha? Robert Frost without New England? or Mark Twain without the Mississippi River?

I’ve been thinking about place, perhaps because I’ve been traveling for the last couple of months. Is our mentality influenced by the geography where we grow up? Does a warm climate or cold climate affect our personality? What about population density? I’d say there are personality traits attributable to natives of NYC which differ from those of Idaho farmers. Some writers weave into their stories and characters the presence of their locality. The setting may become so important it influences the story. Think of novels like To Kill a Mockingbird; No Country For Old Men; The Shipping News; and more recently, White Teeth.

I’ve just returned from Stockholm, Sweden. Its Old City is, like most European cities, built around a ponderous stone church with stained glass windows that probably kept artisans busy for years. The statue of St. George and the dragon dominates not just the chapel but your imagination. It rises godlike above us peons shuffling about the horse’s hoofs and the dragon’s back. This statue, with a fierce knight on a rearing steed and a thorny dragon wrestling at its feet, is anything but benevolent in appearance. It is so commanding that if there was a cross in the church, I didn’t see it.

Is it no wonder that a writer of such fantasy as Hans Christian Anderson emerged from Scandinavia, a land of brutal winters, deep, cold waterways, and rocky skerries. I’d like to think that if I lived there, I’d write about deep, cold, brutal and fascinating characters.

Some of the rocky skerries are hardly big enough for a bird’s nest

Prior to going to Sweden, I spent time at Edisto Island, a barrier island that is geographically similar to St. Helena Island, both located along South Carolina’s coast. What these islands have in common with Stockholm is water. Whether creeks, rivers, basins, tributaries, ponds or puddles, water is everywhere.

Stockhom’s residents live on Malapen Lake which connects to the Baltic Sea with locks. A fleet of taxi boats ferries the locals to and from the 23,000 islands that form a nearby archipelago. Water taxis are but a dream, if that, to Carolina’s barrier islands, which are less populated and obviously less affluent.

And the Atlantic Ocean is no Baltic Sea. Edisto Island’s waters are warm and comforting, even if restless. Waves can be wild but they’re not cold compared to the Baltic. The undertows can be powerful and unpredictable, and you wouldn’t know of one unless you’re in the water. Tides cause the waters to rise and drop by as much as seven feet every day. Instead of rocks, there’s silt. Does this mean that the barrier islands inspire characters that appear to be warm, generous, and accommodating, but are sandy in the soul and of inconstant character?

Small Carolina islands are sandy marshes overgrown with spartina grass
 that shelters a host of wildlife, from alligators to oysters.


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