What’s Different? The Challenge of Paying Attention

Kate Flora: I’ve written about this before, but being in a new place reminds me again of how important it is for writers to be attuned to our surroundings. As we’ve done for several years, we are spending the month of March in Florida. Still carefully socially isolated but living and working in a very different location.

The other day, I went out for a walk around the neighborhood. I was wearing shorts and a tee shirt. Flip flops. A hat and lots of sunscreen. And I was walking past small streets of unfamiliar houses, looking at the ways people have used trees and shrubs for their landscaping. Looking at the lawn art, the placement of chairs and benches, the way people landscape those little islands of shrubs and trees in the middle of their lawns. What looks inviting, what looks static, what gives privacy and what just looks like came off a landscaper’s truck.

It was when a few big gusts of wind went by that I realized how different these shrubs and trees sound from the ones I’ve been walking past on my almost daily walks up north. At home, the pine trees sigh as the wind blows through them, and in winter, there are few other leaves left on the trees. Those that are left, mostly oak leaves, are crisp and dry and rustle and rattle loudly when the wind blows. If the wind stirs these northern trees and shrubs, the result is more likely to be bare branches knocking and rubbing, or entire tree trunks creaking if the wind is strong.

(An aside: once, during a late winter/early spring wind storm, I heard an ash tree truck torque and split with a sound like an explosion. It was very tall and right by my house, and I called a tree company with the question: Is there such a think as a tree emergency? They came and took down the tree, to the delight of two small boys who got to watch, and reported that it could very well have become a tree emergency. I was right to make the call.)

The path to the beach

So. Back to Florida. Here the leaves are often large and rubbery and make a rubbery flap when they move. Or long and leathery and fern-like, like palms and palmettos, and they rub and shift with crisp, bright sounds. They sigh and hiss and crackle. If I were going to set a story in Florida, I would have to do a lot of research to make the setting feel authentic. To know what sights and sounds I would need to put in my character’s head.

The birds are different, too. Across the pond, the young osprey mewl like babies and the parents call back. Cormorants and pelicans land in the pond with enormous splashes. Something farther down the pond shrieks like it is being murdered. The crows are loud and everywhere the doves coo and mutter. Through binoculars, I watch the unwanted green iguana sunning itself in someone’s back yard, and I call the police to ask if they still care about this invasive predator.

After a year of being masked, and being only in places where everyone else is also masked, where what we’ve seen of one another is our eyes, our unkempt covid hair, and bulky winter coats, it is a surprise to realize I am seeing people’s whole faces when I take my end of the day beach walk. We are few and politely distanced. But it is kind of a shock to see whole faces. Tanned faces. And people are smiling, as though we are all overjoyed to have the chance to go free again.

Often when I am teaching, I tell my students that a key to understanding, and creating, characters begins with understanding what is “not you.” How is that person different in appearance, attitude, experience, education, world view, vocabulary, etc. The same examination of differences works for places. How is this place different, and how do you render that visceral and credible for your readers?


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6 Responses to What’s Different? The Challenge of Paying Attention

  1. Do you remember when we were kids and on damp days we could hear the train whistle all the way from Warren? Here in Waterville, we hear trains every night around 11, but they sound different than the ones I heard in my dorm during my freshman year at ASU. Those sounded like they were going through the next room. Three different places, three different sounds.

  2. maggierobinsonwriter says:

    I am jealous!

  3. Amber Foxx says:

    Wonderful attention to sounds. I haven’t been to Maine for a few years, and haven’t been to Florida for even longer, but you let me be immersed in both places for a moment.

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