Space speaks. Space acts. It is the character that contains all of the other characters—real or fictional—in your work. Yet we too often take it for granted, as a sort of window-dressing to add color to the comings and goings of characters, the machinations of plot, and the Big Ideas of theme. But think about your own life—how thoroughly it is shaped by the intersection of place and time. What is the self without place and time, anyway?
So let’s step back and give place the role it deserves: As a character in its own right:
Take the role of a place and narrate moments of its “life” in first-person, from the point of view of the place itself. How would the place describe itself? How would it describe its own history? How would it describe the things that have taken place—and are currently taking place—in and around it? How do people affect the place? How does the place affect people?
Use your powers of observation and empathy to really see how places act upon their environment, and how the environment—including people and other living things—acts upon places.
On your first try, just write 2-3 compact pages. But bring this exercise into your regular practice, revisiting it every month or so, or anytime you are inspired, bewildered, or even dismayed by a place. You’ll find that you become more sensitive to both the sensory realities and subtexts of place, and that you are even moved to research the place further to get a deeper sense of its “voice” and history and modes of action.
This exercise help you integrate a sharp sense of place into even your more conventional nonfiction reporting!