Last week I hung photographs and prints on the walls of my workday office, the final task of a renovation that began in December 2019 and was completed—but for the picture hanging—two months later.
For the twelve months it took the earth to make a complete revolution around the sun, the things to be hung huddled against the freshly painted walls, waiting for a hook and a hammer to welcome them home.
Yet one more 2020 metaphor, I suppose.
In any event, the things are now hung and that act immediately transformed my office into a warmer, more pleasurable space.
I find it interesting that almost all of the photographs and prints I’ve collected over the years depict places that matter to me. Blueberry barrens in Hancock County. Fenway Park. A clutch of rowboats on the shoreline in Cape Porpoise. The ferry crossing Casco Bay on its way to Peaks Island.
This brings me to today’s topic, which is writers who do a great job describing place, which is related to, but distinct from, setting. Setting is the community where the story unfolds. Well-crafted descriptions of place tell you something about the people who live there.
In her brilliant book When We Were the Kennedys, esteemed Maine novelist and playwright Monica Wood describes the Oxford Paper Mill in her hometown of Mexico in vivid, resonant prose. Like Monica, I grew up in a paper mill town, and understand not only what she’s saying here, but why she’s saying it.
On certain spring days the woodyard resembled brush strokes on canvas, wood gathered into glowing pyramids, their shapes shifting as sun and shadow drew out their living colors. In winter, under a pitiless midday light, the entire mill complex could appear almost fragile, its myriad shapes exposed here, snow-muffled there, its breathing presence open to the elements. In summer, at dusk, it laid bare its bones, a bleak and soulless silhouette against a dying sky. The truth behind these tableaux lay in the artless reality of industry, a pact between man and machine, management and labor. But I like to think that on certain mornings of low light, in certain seasons or turns of weather, Dad saw the mill in that other way, the mill as a living being, a bestower of pride and bounty, real as a father: benevolent, trustworthy, unfailingly present.
MCW emeritus Paul Doiron is another master at capturing place. This description of a godforsaken place from his most recent Mike Bowditch novel, One Last Lie stuck with me long after I’d finished the book:
The forest along the Rocky Brook Road had been logged so hard there was hardly a tree left standing taller than a telephone pole. The state had outlawed wholesale clear-cutting years ago, but you never would’ve known it from the wanton devastation stretching as far as the eye could see. Vast fields, consisting of stumps and deadfalls, tangled puckerbrush, and a few worthless cedars, extended for miles along both sides of the thoroughfare. Poplars and willows were so splattered with mud from the logging trucks that they seemed nearly sculptural. If you had told me brutal battles had been fought here with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades, I would have believed you.
There’s a lot to work with in rural Maine, but my friend and MCW colleague Richard Cass takes us to the gritty heart of Boston with this passage from Last Call at the Esposito:
Rico’s was the kind of bar the new Boston wanted out of its sight and out of its hair. But there were still plenty of neighborhoods in the city where money and high taste hadn’t yet forced the people who’d grown up there to relocate, just as there were still neighborhood taverns where no one but the locals wanted to drink. Like many of the old-school bars around the city, Rico’s had a second door in the back with a sign bearing a different name, in Rico’s case, The Green Door. This habit, obscured in history, allowed a husband to tell his wife he was at one bar when he was really at another. Since wives tended to live in the same neighborhoods at their husbands, Burton didn’t think anyone was fooling anyone else. But he loved knowing things about his city that the incoming yupsters and hipsters would never find out.
To me, that passage is visceral. I can see the bar. I can smell the stale beer. I can hear the broad Boston accents of its patrons and guess what they’re talking about.
As writers, we can’t aim for more than that.
Brenda Buchanan is the author of the Joe Gale Mystery Series, featuring a diehard Maine newspaper reporter who covers the crime and courts beat. Three books—QUICK PIVOT, COVER STORY and TRUTH BEAT—are available everywhere e-books are sold. These days she’s hard at work on new projects.