Writing the City: Place as Character

by Tim Gilmore, 2/10/2023

Setting is never incidental. Setting is character. Capturing the spirit of place is essential. So how do we report setting, tell the truth about place, excavate its deep meaning? The personality of place must be measured at street level: in living rooms, dive bars, old churches and crime scenes. These measurements, these excavations, are samplings, demonstrations of deeper truths and larger stories.

This principle is, admittedly, more of a philosophy, that a program. There’s no formula, no 10-step process.

WHAT is JaxPsychoGeo?

I said there’s no 10-step process. Not to dissuade everyone, but there might, in fact, be a 22,520-step process. That’s the average number of steps it takes to walk 10 miles. Charles Dickens, himself a great psychogeographer, used to walk as many as 10 miles across London at night. He knew his city inside and out. He brought it to life, made it, as much as Pip or Uriah Heep or Inspector Bucket, his protagonist (and antagonist), his primary character.

His 1860 essay “Night Walks” is one of my favorites. It’s a case study in getting to know the city and making of the city your character.

“Night Walks” by Charles Dickens, from The Uncommercial Traveler

Bringing things closer to home, Jean Toomer’s 1923 novel Cane comprises an interrelated series of vignettes and poems in which the Georgia landscape haunts and infuses the sexuality of its characters. In the original introduction, novelist Waldo Frank writes of Toomer, “A poet has arisen among our American youth who has known how to turn the essences and material of his Southland into the essences and materials of literature.” The vignette “Blood-Burning Moon” is a gorgeous and tragic depiction of Georgia lives as crops of the Southern landscape.

Cane by Jean Toomer

And I can’t talk about place as character without talking about the memory of place — not just our memory of place, or of a place, but place’s own memory — and the following dialogue, between Sethe and her daughter Denver, in Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel Beloved.

“What were you praying for, ma’am?”

“Not for anything. I don’t pray anymore. I just talk.”

“What were you talking about?”

“You won’t understand, baby.”

“Yes, I will.”

“I was talking about time. It’s so hard for me to believe in it. Some things go. Pass on. Some things just stay. I used to think it was my rememory. You know. Some things you forget. Other things you never do. But it’s not. Places, places are still there. If a house burns down, it’s gone, but the place–the picture of it–stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there, in the world. What I remember is a picture floating around out there outside my head. I mean, even if I don’t think it, even if I die, the picture of what I did, or knew, or saw is still out there. Right in the place where it happened.”

“Can other people see it?” asked Denver.

“Oh, yes. Oh, yes, yes, yes. Someday you be walking down the road and you hear something or see something going on. So clear.

“And you think it’s you thinking it up. A thought picture. But no. It’s when you bump into a rememory that belongs to somebody else. Where I was before I came here, that place is real. It’s never going away. Even if the whole farm–every tree and grass blade of it dies.

“The picture is still there and what’s more, if you go there–you who never was there–if you go there and stand in the place where it was, it will happen again; it will be there for you, waiting for you. So, Denver, you can’t never go there. Never. Because even though it’s all over– over and done with–it’s going to always be there waiting for you. That’s how come I had to get all my children out. No matter what.”

Denver picked at her fingernails. “If it’s still there, waiting, that must mean that nothing ever dies.” Sethe looked right in Denver’s face.

“Nothing ever does,” she said.

*     *     *

My own city walks, my own perambulations into the character of my hometown, inform each of my stories at JaxPsychoGeo and in books differently, whether it’s “Westside Murder Map” or “Old Panama Road” or the childhood terrors of a giant Mr. Peanut sign, but they’re there in just about everything I write.

Westside Murder Map: Where George “Ronnie” York and James Latham Met Althea Ottavio and Patricia Anne Hewett

Old Panama Road

Francis Poole’s Full Circle