In writing, unlike other art forms, the visual has been stripped away. There is no sound, smell, touch or taste that is not evoked by the words on the page. But, still, all stories - long, short, minimalist or epic - should be anchored in a time and place that the reader can picture inside their mind.
This might seem easy but places like people are constantly evolving. A story might be set in King's Cross station (maybe platform 9 and 3/4s) but is it bustling with early morning commuters or is it at dusk, and is the dusk a summer's sunset or a murky overcast 4 o'clock in winter when the light is greeny grey and pigeons are cooing in the arches overhead?
For writers of short fiction, the task is doubly difficult. In a piece of flash, there is no room to dedicate seven paragraphs to describing the particular smell of Parisian sewers that seems to linger even when surrounded by the splendour of Napoleonic architecture. Instead, concision is key. How do you transport the reader in the most succinct fashion?
It is a dark art but one which the six wonderful pieces I've picked out for this month's showcase blog demonstrate in abundance. They weave flecks of description into the narrative so that even a "prickly pear cacti" is essential to the plot. They use thorns and branches to ramp up the tension. And they use tone of voice to suggest setting through dialogue as well as the general way they tell their stories.
First up, a piece by Richard Hillesley which oozes life. "A train rattles over the Bridges," is a wonderful opening line. Straight away, I've got the scene in my head and, from there, each new detail builds in a rich tapestry. "The public lavatory" adds an unpleasant scent and "a sparrow [nesting] in a crack in a wall" adds further sound to the rattling train. I love the way the poverty of the area ("a landscape of asymmetric desolation") is juxtaposed with posters of blue skies. And then the idiomatic dialogue kicks in, pitch perfect - a masterpiece in how to evoke a scene:
If you enjoyed that, you can find Richard on Twitter @tuxdeluxe. His other stories are similarly infused with a wonderful tone of voice and sense of place, and he has a collection coming out with Clochoderick Press in the next few months.
Staying with the jazz theme, this story by Fiona Mackintosh transports you into a vividly painted world. What I love here is how every piece of description also carries a secondary layer of meaning. We start off with the title. "The Real Jazz Baby" tells me so much - it suggests the era, the place, the fragility of the central character. This is then enhanced by the opening line - a "house in Laurel Canyon", dolls "ranged along her pillow like a chorus line". These dolls are a metaphor for the jazz baby's youth/naivety but also for the sleaziness inherent in the Hollywood bubble. I think I could read this through a dozen times and still find extra little hints of meaning and, all the while, the sense of place would be completely clear inside my mind:
This piece won Reflex Fiction's Autumn 2018 flash fiction competition. Fiona seems to be somewhat of a master in this regard and you can find more of her stories on her website. She is on Twitter @fionajanemack
Tone of voice and sense of place are even more important in historical fiction than they are in stories based in the modern day. The writer is not just taking the reader to a different place but a different time as well. This piece by Jan Stinchcomb does this in a wonderfully unique way. Rather than telling us what the world looks like, the world is shaped by the actions of the characters. The past is brought to life through the use of animal skins and the belief in dreams. The use of language ("the sun and moon trade places again and again") perfectly reflects the time and place:
Jan is on Twitter @janstinchcomb. You can find out more about her book "The Blood Trail" on her website.
Sometimes, the setting can be so important to a story that it becomes a character in its own right just like in this piece by Lee Hamblin. There is so much packed into the opening description. "Feral forest" implies the trees are alive and wonderfully foreshadows what is to come. A lot of the word choices are deliberately infused with emotion - "a track screened and choked with thicketed scrub", "flayed by unmerciful branches" - as this unsettling piece builds up tension towards its conclusion:
Lee is on Twitter @kali_thea and you can find his website here with links to lots more evocative stories.
I am often blown away by what writers can achieve in the space of a hundred words and this drabble by Anne O'Leary is packed with details that describe not one scene but three (or possibly four!). Just as the narrator "[weaves her] love, stitch by stitch", Anne has weaved so much into such a tiny piece. I get a wonderful sense of the narrator, her relationship to both her mother and her fiancé as well as being able to see each of them in their present and possible future states:
You can find out more about Anne on her blog. Follow her on Twitter @wordherding
To end with, a story by Michelle Christophorou that I've read several times and each time I've been completely transported to the idyllic Cypriot setting. When painting a sense of place, I think it's important to hit all the senses and this piece does that in spades. "Flip-flops slap on sun-bleached lanes", there is the "scratch of [a] straw seat on bare thigh" and the taste/smell of watermelon, glyko and cognac. Michelle describes things in unusual ways - words which "curve from others’ mouths grow spiky in her own" - and she's so clever in eking out further description in actions and memories ("the prickly pear cacti she once fell into"). There is just the right amount of Greek peppered through the piece to enhance the sense of place without confusing the ignorant non-Greek speaking reader. Finally, I love the twist in the tail of this story and how it works so much better because of all the brilliant work that's been done to set us firmly in time and place:
This story is another competition winner (this time, the recent Retreat West competition) and Michelle is on a roll right now. Follow her on Twitter @MAChristophorou
That's it for another month! In July, I'll be looking at pieces which take you to unexpected yet wonderful places.
If you've enjoyed the above six fabulous stories by Anne, Fiona, Jan, Lee, Michelle and Richard, please show your love on Twitter or leave a comment below.