Pioneer Valley in western Massachusetts

Pioneer Valley in western Massachusetts

If you have read the novels of Dennis Lehane (among them “Gone, Baby, Gone,” “Mystic River” and “Shutter Island,” all made into movies), you know that place is a powerful character, even a protagonist, in his works.

Novelist Dennis Lehane

Dennis Lehane

I recently came across Lehane’s 2017 novel, “Since We Fell,” on a local library shelf. It is a stark tale of morality and madness, driven at a relentless, chaotic pace by central character Rachel Childs.

Lehane’s opening paragraph introduces us to Rachel not by profiling her or giving her anything to do, but rather by describing where she grew up — by taking us to a place. Just 123 words later, you know a lot about Rachel Childs without a single word telling us what she looks like, what she does or why we might care.

Rachel was born in the Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts. It was known as the Region of the Five Colleges — Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke, Smith, and the University of Massachusetts — and it employed two thousand faculty to teach twenty-five thousand students. She grew up in a world of coffee shops, B&Bs, wide town commons, and clapboard houses with wraparound porches and musky attics. In autumn, leaves fell by the tubful and choked the streets, spilled into the sidewalks, and clogged fence holes. Some winters, snow encased the valley in silence so dense it became its own sound. In July and August, the mail carrier rode a bicycle with a bell on the handlebar, and the tourists arrived for summer stock theater and antiquing.

Although the third-person omniscient narrator is describing memories, it’s clear that these are Rachel’s recollections, the way she remembers the environment that formed her. It was her world.

How Lehane characterizes the seasons is particularly illuminating, without resorting to meteorological terms. Even the snow reference isn’t really about snow, it’s about how winter feels.

Using place profiles in journalism

What does this have to do with your writing, and more specifically, your journalistic writing? Try to describe your own community, through four seasons and at a particular time. See if you can build a multi-layered sense of place that suggests the implications of that setting for the people who live there. Mimic Lehane’s structure if it helps.

Small spoiler alert: The soft-lens opening foreshadows just how far Rachel’s story trajectory takes her from what sounds like an idyllic upbringing. The contrast is meaningful.

And a not-really-giving-anything-away spoiler alert: Rachel Childs is a journalist.


Don Nelson is the owner/publisher/editor of a weekly newspaper in north-central Washington state. He has worked in newspapers and magazines for more than 40 years.

Further Reading

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