George Getschow, the tribal leader and founder of the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, opened Sunday’s sessions by taking attendees to the Fulton Fish Market in New York, the Los Angeles County Courthouse and the Rio Grande in south Texas. Landscape and setting can play just as an important part in stories as the characters and actions, Getschow said. He pointed to examples from Melville, Steinbeck and a handful of journalists to show how great writers craft scenery. “Landscape and place are inextricably bound up with their characters,” Getschow said.
One of Getschow’s examples was Dan Barry’s 2005 story in The New York Times about the end of the Fulton Fish Market in Lower Manhattan:
It smells of truck exhaust and fish guts. Of glistening skipjacks and smoldering cigarettes; fluke, salmon and Joe Tuna’s cigar. Of Canada, Florida, and the squid-ink East River. Of funny fish-talk riffs that end with profanities spat onto the mucky pavement, there to mix with coffee spills, beer blessings, and the flowing melt of sea-scented ice.
This fragrance of fish and man pinpoints one place in the New York vastness: a small stretch of South Street where peddlers have sung the song of the catch since at least 1831, while all around them, change. They were hawking fish here when an ale house called McSorley’s opened up; when a presidential aspirant named Lincoln spoke at Cooper Union; when the building of a bridge to Brooklyn ruined their upriver view.
Take it in now, if you wish, if you dare, because the rains will come to rinse this distinct aroma from the city air. Some Friday soon, perhaps next month, the fish sellers will spill their ice and shutter their stalls, pack their grappling hooks and raise a final toast beneath the ba-rump and hum of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Drive.
Getschow offered this checklist for developing landscape as a character:
- What is the history of the place, and how does it affect the place today?
- What is the economy of the place? How does money, or lack thereof, impact characters?
- What do people wear in the place?
- What do people eat in the place?
- How do people speak to each other in the place?
- What is the weather like?
- What’s the religious landscape like? What do people believe?
- What are the gestures people use? How do people greet each other?
- Are people in the place superstitious? What superstitions do they believe?
- What sensory details can you use to describe the place? What does it look like, what does it sound like, what does it smell like?
“Suddenly, the place becomes a character. A living, breathing character,” Getschow said. “That’s what we do as storytellers, we want them to experience what we’ve experienced.”