I’ve been thinking about place recently.

How setting can affect pieces in fiction and non-fiction, short pieces and longer works.

I sat and waited for someone one night, a long time ago, and I was taken by the way the streetlights and the storm that was moving over the streets reflected off the wall of bottles behind the bar. I figured it was probably important to remember the way it looked, in case I wanted to write it into something someday.

And lately, I’ve been thinking about the places that I grew up in, and how they might affect future narratives – or even how future narratives might be entirely about them.

Place, you know? How does place figure into things? What makes for a good description of place? Who are the authors who are good at doing this?

Aside from Brin Friesen, that is?

What’s the best way to evoke the spirit of a place? To call it forth? Should place become a character? Is it that important? Does it depend on the place?


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SIMON SMITHSON is an Australian writer and editor. He is currently based in Melbourne, Australia, but frequently finds himself in Los Angeles and San Francisco. His work has appeared on both sides of the globe in print and online in publications such as BLIP, Every Day Fiction, Beat, The Loop, My Sinking Boat, and more. He has a tumblr at www.simonsmithson.com and he runs a lifestyle experiment at www.selfhelpless.net.

5 responses to “This Must be the Place”

  1. Brin Friesen says:

    I’m flattered, Simon.

    But I’d like to know what city’s you’ve found it the easiest to write in or *of*? Why do you think it was?

    A lot of time I think about arriving to a new place or leaving it. Seeing somewhere for the first time at night or in the day.

    I found Havana for the first time at night and I’ll never forget how scared I was walking in a perfectly safe neighborhood just for the fact of how STRANGE it felt. A part of that has stayed with me whenever I write about that place.

  2. Simon Smithson says:

    Seriously, man, I think you’ve got a gift for setting and describing place. I’m in awe of your work with the Domino Diaries.

    What I’ve been coming to notice is that a lot of my pieces are more in the realm of the abstract; visual and textured descriptions aren’t a big piece of my bag. With ideas churning over for more pieces about place, specifically my home town, I want to work on that.

    I think that might be key – that combination of concrete and emotional descriptions.

  3. […] too long ago, Simon Smithson submitted a brief blog entry, seeking ideas about the best way to write about place.  I had nothing to say about it.  I was […]

  4. Lisa Rae Cunningham says:

    Hey. I’m a late-comer here. I just read Brin’s Tyson piece and this was beneath it, and I thought I hadn’t read it and I was right!

    I’ve given this a shitload of thought for a great many years.

    I’m actually writing a screenplay (it’s coming out of a short story I wrote that I never got published) about the Jersey side of the Hudson River, one neighborhood in particular, a slum in Jersey City. Ensemble cast, but the main character is the neighborhood. All the human existential stuff is tied together by a black-out in Hudson County and the death of Frank Sinatra. The people are just people – they are typical of this place. The place is everything. It’s the essence.

    You know the two authors who come to mind immediately for me are Toni Morrison and John Steinbeck. Jazz by Toni Morrison. That’s a book to read. The neighborhood narrates. And Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday are my favorite Steinbeck novels. A little slum in Monterey is the setting for both – Sweet Thursday is a sequel. Steinbeck is definitely a master of setting, particularly California.

    For me, setting and tone often go hand in hand. Strong voice writers (which I believe you are) are evocative. From what I know of your work, I’d say you have a good sense of balance when it comes to navigating terrain in a minimalist fashion while your internal character fills that space with mood. You’ve done some cool stuff with your road trip descriptions lately.

    Who knows if you’ll even get this comment. I have insomnia. This is why I spend “shitloads” of time thinking. (Or maybe the shitloads are responsible for the insomnia. Either way, I’m up.)

    • Simon Smithson says:

      Oh, I got it. The time difference means I got the jump on everyone. Unless I’m in bed, which means everyone’s got the jump on me.


      There’s a philosophy in there, somewhere.

      Yeah, Steinbeck’s got it down pat when it comes to his localities. Another guy who’s good with it (or rather, was) is Ed McBain – his 87th Precinct novels turn the city into this overarching presence behind everything.

      Thanks, Lis! I’d be interested to know more about your screenplay.

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