A chorus of screams tears me from my sleep.
I shoot up from bed, wholly disoriented, hands grasping at the darkness as I fumble to locate its source. Within moments I am lost. Everything is wrong here–the windows have been stolen, the walls arranged in some incoherent manner. I shuffle my feet across a floor of cold tile. The screams grow louder and a tinge of panic sharpens my movements. Finally my fingers meet with plaster, trace the edges of a sill. I grapple with a window blind until SNAP! it recoils and a dull tepid light fills the room. Framed through a whitewashed window, the outside world is a revelation. Vacant-looking houses, foreign in their prim austerity, line the narrow street. Beyond them, a wisp of sandy beach. And then the sea–a placid sheet of mercury shimmering in the dawn. The screams draw my eyes upward. A murder of hooded crows is rioting by the thousands, their collective calls echoing against a steel gray sky. I turn and look back at the room, now comfortable and understood, and remember where I am.
No, this isn’t an excerpt from a working manuscript, but rather an entry from my daily journal dated 01/13/15–the first day my wife and I would wake up in our new house on the southern coast of Sweden. After more than ninety days of nomadic living, waiting for resident visas and shipping containers and a myriad of stress-inducing issues to be resolved, we were finally here–in our chosen place–turning a quiet, stove-heated house on the Baltic coast into our home.
It’s nearly impossible to overstate the importance of place in the context of both my life and my storytelling. From the first moment I gazed out the window of this old house by the sea, I knew this was where I wanted to live. It was a simple gut-based certainty, the same kind of immediate and overwhelming emotional affirmation to a newly discovered setting that has turned my wife and me into habitual travelers. And it’s this same visceral connection to my surroundings that largely drives my writing process.
Truth be told, when conceptualizing a story, I almost always develop the settings before the characters. My reason for this is simple – with a place firmly in mind, I now have a framework for developing the tone of the storyline and the nature of the characters that will dwell within it. A vast empty desert? Perhaps I see emotionally threadbare characters that reflect the raw, hardscrabble landscape, revealing their qualities in more subtle, muted tones. The fringes of a large third-world city? I can’t help but fill this setting with rich, colorful characters with complex, intersecting lives.
Of course, like any worthwhile character, the settings themselves should evolve to reveal surprises. How many times have you walked the same stretch of shoreline or passed the same landmark and found yourself noticing a certain quality of light or variation in color that makes it seem remarkably different? A playground can be terrifying at night just as surely as a nuclear fallout zone might be beautifully peaceful. For me, revelations in the nature of a place are a key element to providing the emotional backdrop–and often the impetus–of my characters’ development.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to writing. Outside my window, the Baltic waters are mirror calm. A light wind is rousing the copper schooner weathervane on the empty summerhouse next door, and the fishermen are slowly making their way back to shore. It’s a perfect place for a crime, and a cast of new characters is already beginning to reveal themselves in this wonderfully quiet, desolate place I call home.