Author's Workbook


The character and personality of a place. Psychologies rooted in geography: an ecology of meaning. Psychologies emerging out of a physical context. It’s the narrative that establishes the relationship between characters and the world that formed them, the world they are forming. Realism is fungible term: a function of invention as in painting or photography. Reality is affirmed in the mind, as with music. Quiddity: not realism but the internal reality of perceptions. Always: an exquisite particular over a myopic generality. Nouns and verbs over adjectives and adverbs. Setting isn’t something static, but a living organism moving through time. It’s resonant, but not an obvious metonymy. Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse:

So fine was the morning except for a streak of wind here and there that the sea and sky looked all one fabric, as if sails were stuck high up in the sky, or the clouds had dropped down into the sea.

Or just an image and language, its simplicity and cadence. Hemmingway, The Sun Also Rises:

Then we crossed a wide plain, and there was a big river off on the right shining in the sun from between the line of trees, and away off you could see the plateau of Pamplona rising out of the plain, and the walls of the city, and the great brown cathedral, and the broken skyline of the other churches.

A place doesn’t have to be real to have quiddity. Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities:

Isaura, city of a thousand wells, is said to rise over a deep, subterranean lake. On all sides, wherever the inhabitants dig long vertical wells in the ground, they succeed in drawing up water, as far as the city extends, and no farther. Its green boarder repeats the dark outline of the buried lake; an invisible landscape conditions the visible one; everything that moves in the sunlight is driven by the lapping wave enclosed beneath the rock's calcareous sky.


San Francisco. City of weather. Fog pouring in. Mixed media days of grays and blues. Neighborhoods, microclimates, indefatigable hills. The blatant hubris of a pagan pyramid and the grandest bridge on the continent. Harbors, esplanades, the huddled masses of gaudily painted houses, smug survivors of the great fire. Squeezed between the sea and the bay, worrying it may run out of space and time. Color: wind-whipped spume. Or buttermilk. Quirkiness a civic virtue, its own brand of differenceand everyhting under siege by the swarming hordes from the Valley, rabid to change the world  amid the tents and sleeping bags, the shocking squalor of a mispent lives. The beautiful precarious of things: living on the edge, never knowing when everything will move a little bit north, in the wake of destruction and ruin.

Houston. Bright and hot. Gloomy and hot. Wet and hot. Of all the major cities, the least ambiguous. A melting pot over a barbecue pit. Hispanic illegals contending with an virulent strain of Anglo Protestantism. Chest-thumping patriotism with guns and mutterings of secessionism. Economic freedom in the tight embrace of fundamentalism. And everywhere temples to the Almighty Buck. Pay no attention to the politician with a hand in your pocket, unless it belongs to a Democrat. A palpable hypocrisy in the air. Color: the yellow of a low flame. Or a corn tortilla.  It's a place to go when other options have run out. The boosters sing the praises of opportunity and cheap living, and they might be right. Some say the city has become a beacon amid the gloom of the outback. Others say it’s a flame drawing moths to their doom. There's much talk of law and order, but drug cartels call it their capital, and stay clear of your armed neighbors, whether on the road or at their front door In problems large or small, prayer is always the answer.


Boston. A Rift Valley: strata full of the impressive bones of the past. Color: the gray of fish scales. The gray of slate. Maybe the brown of seaweed, or two-year-old bricks. Maybe the color of a late fall afternoon. Palpable history under every stone, with all eyes on the future. The humble privileges of both earned and handed-down success. The dowdy sister of Silicon Valley. Common sense. Liberalism, skepticism, wariness of all ideologies but its own. And in between the lumpens wanting to pull it all down. The knowledge industry; the financial industry; industries turning knowledge into money. 


River Run. The end and the beginning: arriving where where you started and knowing the place for the first time. The deep humble green of hicks and those pretending to be. A backyard garden of simplicity and nutritious values. An escape from the relentless striving, while pastures turned into track homes and shopping malls, parodies of progress. Sweet nature, right out of the trees. Plain-speaking. Indefatigable quaintness. The pride of smallness.