And if you live here, you’re automatically a duchess
A couple of weeks ago, my girlfriend and I were invited to spend the night at a house on the Big Sur coast, a house that my girlfriend’s sister was considering buying a shared ownership in. It’s a modest home, bringing to mind a style of California hippie houses of the 70s, with funky, unpretentious charm. That comfortable worn-in feeling is both inside and outside the grounds of the home. And then there’s the view.
The view, of which the photo above only provides a rather shabby sense of its actual grandeur, is sublime. That’s the view you see if you step out the door of the house and move just a bit up the driveway. So, every time I stepped out of that house, my mind shot down that cliff in a delirious riot of color, light, sound and scent. From the cliff, you can hear the ocean whump though the blowholes below, you can hear the trill and squawk of birdsong, you can smell pine and sun-warmed grasses.
Though Big Sur is less than 90 minutes from my house and I too live in a coastal California community, Big Sur is vastly different. It is visually dazzling, with great, craggy cliffs that plunge to a sea crashing on foaming rocks. Even with somewhat recent fires, there are thick forests with trails that lead to rolling waterfalls. There are places like the Henry Miller library, with its eccentric art work in the tree-splashed front yard, the eclectic and thoughtful book collection, the free coffee and ping-pong, the absolute “hang out and read a while” feeling of the place. And, while being cautious of stereotyping the locals, Big Sur folks seem friendly in a way that doesn’t seem affected.
Place Is a State in Your Reader’s Mind
When you are writing about a specific place, you need to open a big window—or step down a short driveway—to the view of that place. But that view must let your reader crunch the gravel underfoot, let them remark on the unusual number of people who have crew cuts, let them peruse a menu that has hush puppies rather than french fries. I’m working on a novel right now whose setting is mainly the San Francisco of the late 80s, and mostly Market Street downtown. The bike messengers, women in fashionable outfits, ragged homeless and lost tourists of Market Street look, sound and smell different from the people I saw roaming Key West a couple of months ago.
Today I went hiking in the redwoods near my house. The redwoods smell different from the pines of Big Sur, they throw the light in a different way from their branches. If you pay real attention to small details that can capture the essence of a place, or distinguish it enough so the reader says, “Ah, so that’s what Big Sur is like,” you’ve gained ground on capturing their imagination too. Or if you can lie skillfully enough to describe the taste of place so that there aren’t false notes in the rendering, even if you’ve never been to that place before, the writing, and the world of imagination it creates, can still hold together.
Oh, about that share in the house: the other partial owners came back, after an absence of some time, to consider whether they really wanted to sell. They came on a beautiful weekend; they decided they couldn’t give it up. Damn.