For writers who grew up in the West the landscape is unconsciously woven into our storytelling. It’s natural because that’s what we know. And it’s the thing that makes our western regional literature distinctive.
This past weekend, I was honored to deliver a keynote speech as the featured guest at the annual Authors Lunch, hosted by the Wyoming Library Association at its annual convention. I talked about the role of “place” in western regional literature, such as “Angle of Repose,” “No Country for Old Men,” and “A River Runs Through It” (among many, many more titles).
Place is at the heart of it. Place is about geography, yes. But “place” is a slippery word. You wouldn’t think so, but it is. It combines location, which is just a pinpoint on a map … locale, which is something different from location. It encompasses the tangible, visible elements of a location where people exist and behave … and a sense of place, which is the meaning and feeling that locations and locales evoke in us. Those feelings are diverse and personal.
I illustrated the differences between location, locale, and sense of place this way:
Consider this location: 40 degrees, 42 minutes, 42 seconds NORTH, and 74 degrees 0 minutes 47 seconds WEST. That’s just an abstract spot that we can find on a map, with a contraption you all hold in your hands right now, a smartphone. In my childhood, we taped a world map on the teacher’s bulletin board and stuck colorful little pins in locations that were somehow important to our studies.
Those coordinates—those little pins—also mark a locale. If you stood at that particular spot, maybe you’d see a park, traffic, markets, some churches. You might smell exhaust, maybe hotdogs. Perhaps it’s a street where the sun disappears from the sky sooner than most places, where people come and go in curious, random ways. They pass in and out of our field of vision like ghosts. Maybe they ARE ghosts. But that’s what we might see at that spot, before we have time to form opinions and feelings about those things. That is locale.
Ah, but those opinions and feelings are what we call a sense of place, the deeper meanings we associate with those little man-made numbers and pins and dots on a map.
So those GPS coordinates I gave you are just numbers. Just a spot on a map. A place where apparently there are ghosts. But those particular numbers?
They mark the spot where the World Trade Centers once stood.
Do you feel how “sense of place” is different from a mere “location”? One you can put your finger on in a map …. the other untouchable, unreachable … maybe even literally unspeakable.
Ron Franscell is the bestselling author of several novels and true crime such as “The Darkest Night” and “Alice & Gerald: A Homicidal Love Story”—all set in the American West.
Cover photo by Sarah Lachise