Where the Ceiling Is

A good friend, being complimentary of my writing, once said, “In your stories I always know where the ceiling is.” We were discussing settings and descriptions of place in the books we loved, and she meant (and I agree) that in my stuff, a firm grounding in the physical surroundings is essential. I’ve said it before on this blog (probably dozens of times now, in various ways), but I am truly a writer of place.

Almost invariably, my story ideas start with places I’ve been to . . . or places I’ve read about . . . or places I imagine. I’m often inspired by pictures — ones seen recently or remembered from childhood — photos, illustrations in books. Some settings just beg to have stories to take place in them.

I frequently linger and gaze into some lonely ditch where water gurgles from a culvert as if from the mouth of a cave — or where weeds stand thick in the tepid mire, a jungle in miniature laid out there just beside some ordinary road. I stop in mid-stride to peer into a thicket on the university campus (Niigata’s is wilder and woodier than most). The shade is deep under certain trees, with light shimmering somewhere beyond, as if somewhere among the tangles, a door into Faery has been left standing ajar. I know I’ve written before of the staggered line of potted pine trees on the traditional Japanese Noh stage — the differences in distance from the viewer meant to suggest passage into another world. These trees border the covered walkway by which certain characters enter and exit. If a ghost passes the trees, it is coming into this world from the realm of spirits. And that leads me to think about how so many writers throughout history have made use of forests as the avenues of passage into a supernatural dimension. Shakespeare, Hawthorne . . . I’m sure you can come up with a better list than I can.

And for what forests can’t handle, we’ve got caverns! And then there are rivers, the sea, and mountains. Do you follow me? My point is that, with the natural world on his/her palette, the painter of fantasy can do anything!

But coming back to “I always know where the ceiling is”: it’s not enough simply to evoke a setting and tip the hat to it only occasionally. I believe it has to be an inseparable part of the story’s fabric. The setting is always there from beginning to end, influencing — often determining — the things that happen. We can’t forget it any more than we can deny the real spaces we occupy in our lives. Oh, we can get lost in conversations or ideas, for sure, and that’s good to do. A story isn’t a real estate brochure, and if you stop with the setting alone, you don’t have a story yet. But if we forget where the ceiling is, we’ll bump our heads sooner or later. And we daren’t forget the yawning stairway.

Whoever does not fully appreciate the crucial importance of setting to story would do well to read Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows” and “The Wendigo,” or most of Lovecraft’s stories, or watch Lawrence of Arabia or Field of Dreams. . . . Again, I’m sure you can make a more intelligent list than I can.

What I find quite often is that a vital consciousness of the setting helps to generate story ideas every bit as much as the actions and personalities of characters do. Having a map — and thinking about all that it was telling me — helped me immensely with the writing of Agondria. So did having my cousin’s graphite sketches, which spoke volumes about the characters’ surroundings.

I recently came up with this advice when another good friend and I were talking about writer’s block: I’m sure this isn’t original with me, but I suggested gathering some pictures that the writer found intriguing or inspirational — magazine photos, pictures from the Internet, whatever — and pretending that they were illustrations for the story under construction. There’s something delightfully satisfying about such a technique, isn’t there? It’s like making a mold of some object, then pouring some substance into the mold, then breaking the mold when the substance has hardened. We’ve made use of the intermediary vehicle — the visual images — to create something else, something of our own.

During the year that “The Star Shard” was being serialized in Cricket, I had the delightful privilege of answering questions from young readers on the magazine’s website; and a good many readers of Cricket are themselves aspiring writers. One question I was asked over and over again was, “How do you keep a story going? How do you know what to write once you’ve started?” My advice is that a stalled story can quite often become unstalled by the writer’s imagining him/herself to be in the story, a part of that described world. Look around, and pay careful attention to the details. Chances are good that, within minutes, you’ll know what has to happen next for your characters — and what has to happen after that, and after that. . . . I’ve noticed that, at times when the writing is going badly or I don’t know where the story should go next, it’s quite often because I’ve lost a sense of being in the setting — I’ve begun writing from some outside point. If the story becomes an abstraction, it suffers — at least in my writing.

“Where the ceiling is” makes me think of two other titles that put “Where” to good use: Where the Wild Things Are, which I’m planning to go see about 90 minutes from now. (It was one of my mom’s pet peeves when she’d ask schoolkids if they knew [she'd say the title of some wonderful book], and the kids would say, “Oh, yeah! I saw that!” — It bothered Mom that they knew the story only from its movie or TV incarnation, and had no idea that it was a book at all. Of course she didn’t take her irk out on the kids, but you can be sure she made them aware.)

For the record, I have read Where the Wild Things Are, so I’m allowed to see the movie. Yes, I’ve read the whole book! Yes, cover to cover. More than once!

And the other “Where” is Where the Sidewalk Ends, by Shel Silverstein. Isn’t that a perfect title for a book of fanciful poems for children? That title alone should win prizes. It evokes the little grassy areas where kids play, where order and adult-determined pathways end. We all have such places somewhere near our homes when we’re kids — those pebble-strewn verges where dreams begin. The ground is always uneven there, isn’t it? It’s never level, and the grass doesn’t grow uniformly. There are taller clumps, there are old stumps, there are places worn bald by stones or by our feet, there are squishy places when it rains, and there are bright places that the sun bakes. I remember coming upon one such place in Niigata years ago, when a friend and I were making a bicycle odyssey to follow the entire perimeter of what’s called “Niigata Island” in a complete circle, heedless of typical routes. There was a place, on a windy ridge facing the sea, where the paved sidewalk just . . . stopped. The wind blew, and the grass riffled, and the sun sparkled on the waves — and there was simply no more pavement. It was pretty cool, and I thought at once of Shel Silverstein.

In all this issue of settings, I was thinking again of The Lord of the Rings. (How often our discussions of great stories lead us back there!) It’s been said by more than one scholar that The Lord of the Rings isn’t primarily a character story; it isn’t even really a plot story at heart. It’s a milieu story, and that means that we re-read and re-read it because what we love is Middle-earth. We want to go again to those wonderful places and hear the poetry and steep ourselves in the legends and histories and interconnectedness of it all. Tolkien knew where his ceilings were . . . and where the mountains were . . . and what was beyond them . . . and what the other names for everything were . . . and why. . . .

And I’ll go you one step further. (Is that even a legitimate expression?!) Much of what we’re enjoying in Tolkien’s settings isn’t something fantastic, exotic, or overtly magical. It’s an echoing stone chasm, a mighty waterfall, a mountain range, light slanting through quiet forest spaces, or landscapes rolling away under shifting clouds. Tolkien recognized that what is most numinous about the world is right here in our own world, and he knew it intimately. Tolkien, too, was a gazer-into-woody-corners. (I wonder if the Oxford of his day had any brushy nooks between buildings?) The story is told of how, when Tolkien and C.S. Lewis would take walks in the countryside together, Lewis preferred to stride along at a good clip, but he was forever having to stop and wait as Tolkien gawked at a tree or crouched to study some leafy shoot or patch of moss.

I’m going to quote here from Ted Nasmith, in his remarks prefacing this year’s extraordinary Tolkien calendar, which Nasmith illustrated:

“Other authors have well-developed descriptions of the lands their characters move through, both real and invented worlds alike, but somehow the combination of Faerie Tale structure wedded to a distinct delight in the minutiae and moods of nature has raised Tolkien’s sub-creation to a level few authors achieve. Some have even commented that Tolkien’s landscape constitutes a character of sorts, and this may be partly due to the tendency of the author — in fine faerie tradition — to blur the lines between his characters and creatures and their environment. . . .

“Clearly nature and animals interact with ‘people’ repeatedly as a central motif in Tolkien’s invented world, and since nature has long been a universal source of artistic and creative inspiration, visual artwork inspired by Tolkien’s works would not be satisfactory without making sure that illustrations also integrate the characters with the settings.”

What other writers do this well? This would be a good time to tell us, dear readers, about the authors and books you love. What are some other tales in which you always know where the ceilings are? Examples are quite welcome, too!

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22 Responses to “Where the Ceiling Is”

  1. John R. Fultz Says:

    Brilliant post, Fred! You nailed the sense of wonder that Tolkien instilled in my 11-year-old self the first time I read LoTR. Or probably even earlier, when I read THE HOBBIT in 3rd grade. And it’s that same sence of natural wonder mixed with luminous myth that has brought me back time and time again over the years to read those books again. It’s been said that writers are first and foremost Observers. I can see that in your own works, as well as Tolkien’s. And what writer doesn’t find a jaunt in the wilderness inspiring?

    To answer your call for writers, I have to bring up William Gibson. He’s a master of evoking the Urban Wilderness. Making you visualize a trash-strewn alley, painting in broad strokes that are full of minute detail–but without slowing the narrative down a trace. He crams so much detail into his descriptions while still blasting through the story, it’s truly amazing. His descriptions of The Sprawl in NEUROMANCER, COUNT ZERO, and MONA LISA OVERDRIVE are as evocative as you could imagine, and yet you never get the feeling that he’s “describing too much.” He manages to cram the claustrobphobic nature of mega-metropolitan life into your field of awareness in such a way that you see, feel, smell, and breathe the setting.

    As for fantasy, R. Scott Bakker does the same thing in a fantasy setting. He’s another writer who totally amazes me at how much detail he invests in descriptive passages without ever “boring” the reader. His philosophical underpinnings also highlight his ultra-detailed descriptions, so it’s usually more than just the physical side of things he’s disturbing. He grabs the reader’s five senses and just immerses them in his fantasy world. Sometimes it’s disturbing, but it’s always enlightening. It makes his world so very REAL.

    Tanith Lee has the ability to evoke entire worlds in broad strokes, or to dive in and smother you with mintue details. And she knows when to do the former and when to do the latter. She has a multitude of styles, as you can see by comparing her FLAT EARTH tales to her PARADYS tales (or VENUS tales). There is no stopping her–she brings her settings to life in a number of ways.

    Personally, I always find it a balancing act: Trying to evoke the setting with as much detail as possible, while not getting bogged down in that very same detail. I think point-of-view is crucial…latching onto a proper point-of-view can guide you through the environment and let you know what to focus on. That works for me, anyhow.

    Cheers,
    J

    • fsdthreshold Says:

      Thank you, John! Your comments (and interview answers) always make me want to get the books and read the authors you talk about! (Did William Gibson write the book Idoru? I seem to associate his name with it….)

      For anyone who doesn’t know, John here is very adept at evoking settings in his fiction. I’ve read his stories that have appeared thus far in BLACK GATE Magazine, and they’re effortlessly atmospheric. Like he’s saying about Gibson, there’s no sense that “the author is DESCRIBING now,” but you see the settings vividly in your mind’s eye.

  2. Elizabeth Says:

    The Lord of the Rings is an excellent example of a book where you can really feel that you have entered a real world, one which has to exist somewhere, even if the book is the only way you can enter it.

    I read The Heart of Veridon this summer, and Tim Akers did an excellent job of creating a fictional world that feels real. I also loved Gibson’s Neuromancer, which as weird as it sounds, has a world I would like to visit.

    • fsdthreshold Says:

      Ooh, I really want to read The Heart of Veridon at some point, because you liked it, and because I know Tim Akers! He’s represented by the same agency that represents me, and I’ve eaten at the same table with him twice now. . . . He’s a very personable, unassuming, down-to-Earth, talented guy.

  3. I want to go there Says:

    … whenever I read a book where the landscape is as brilliantly brought to life as Middle-Earth. I said in one post way, way back, that, were all the races vanished and the place empty, still I would want to stroll abandoned Rivendell, visit Lothlorien, see the majesty of the Tower of the Guard and, with plenty of batteries for the flashlight and fuel for the Coleman lanterns, visit the Dwarrowdelf (a trip which, were he able to take it, would likely slay our blog host. He’d be found, on his back, just inside the East Gate, with an “oooooppp!” expression on his face).

    Howver, as John points out, it does not always work. I made it through 1-6 of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, and while Donaldson is at pains to make us “one with the Land’ I could have given a toot less. I like the idea, just not the presentation of such.

    Our host is brilliant at landscaping. If only all of you were there when (in my own view) his descriptive talents were honed in the halls, chambers and dusty stairwells of Mergon’s dark cellar …

    • fsdthreshold Says:

      I will confess that it was the settings, more than anything else, that drew me to D&D when Mrs. Carlton did us the un-repayable service of introducing us to the game.

      The idea of those dungeons down there in darkness, stretching and descending beneath the hills and plains and forests of the surface world . . . that gave me a visceral thrill in the solar plexus like little else can do. Even now, I will sometimes read a D&D module just for fun, to revel in the setting, even though I don’t have a group to play with. (Just yesterday in my Advanced English class, a student gave a speech about tabletop role-playing games — I was like, YES!!!!)

      I only made it through Books 1-3 of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, and although I remember liking them, especially the third book, the land — or, I guess I should say, the Land — never felt real or even attractive to me in the way that Middle-earth did.

  4. Daylily Says:

    Let’s not forget the Narnia tales. C. S. Lewis gives enough detail that one feels at home in the Beavers’ house or in Tumnus the Fawn’s dwelling. I always had lots of mental pictures, reading these stories. CSL’s _Perelandra_ is another story with a great sense of place, a place so beautiful that I definitely wanted to visit! We should also salute _Watership Down_. I recall that Adams makes sure that we know where the ceiling of each rabbit burrow is!

    • fsdthreshold Says:

      I’ll never forget the line from Watership Down: “It was cold, it was cold and the roof was made of bones.” (In Cowslip’s warren, the Sandleford warren rabbits perceive the root-twined ceiling as being made of bones . . . am I remembering that right? Wow, it’s been a long time — if I were to read that book again, it would almost be like reading it for the first time!)

      • Daylily Says:

        Fred, your memory is essentially correct. You’re quoting the first line of Ch. 17. Hazel is dreaming; this vision of the roof of the “great burrow” (an underground meeting hall for the rabbits) is part of his dream. Later in the chapter, Fiver, the seer, warns the rest of the Sandleford rabbits about Cowslip’s warren, saying ” . . . help ourselves to the great burrow? We shall help ourselves to a roof of bones . . . Help ourselves to misery and death!” Having looked up the reference, I think I would like to reread _Watership Down_. :-)

      • fsdthreshold Says:

        Daylily, that’s fascinating! The “bones” reference comes through a dream and through the words of a visionary. Both brothers are perceiving the essence of Cowslip’s warren, the reality behind the peaceful facade. Even without the roots, the great burrow is “roofed over with bones” since the field above it is a place of death. I’d like to re-read the book, too!

        Thanks for the additional information!

  5. Marquee Movies Says:

    Brown Snowflake, you are SO right about our host’s great interest (obsession?) with caves, caverns, tunnels, etc. I was recently blessed enough to visit Egypt, and actually got to climb into the Great Pyramid of Giza. The climb is tight and narrow, you need to walk hunched over in mostly darkness for what seems like a long, long time, all while people who are leaving are bumping into you while trying to push their way out. You keep hitting your head, your back starts aching, it’s getting hotter and hotter, and the passageway seems to be getting smaller and smaller……
    I’ve described this in loving detail to several people, making myself out to be the hero each time – “Oh, but I persevered,” while putting the back of my hand to my forehead. But I made it all the way in – and I’m glad I did it. (Next time I post here, I’ll let everyone know if I ever got out again.) But each time I tell this story to anyone, I always follow it up with, “But I know a guy who would LOVE to have done that. In fact, he’s gone into dark and tight places where you have to crawl on your belly to get to the next open area!” And the person will always shudder and shake his/her head. “Never!” But – that’s Fred. He has said that exploring the Mines of Moria would be his dream fictional exploration – without the optional Balrog, though – he’s not THAT crazy.

    • fsdthreshold Says:

      Heh, heh — thanks! I’m honored that I get mentioned when you tell your pyramid story. I like having the reputation of “the subterranean guy.” But for the record, it’s not tight spaces underground that appeal to me — it’s the sweeping, vast caverns that I love.

      Marquee, I know you’re remembering my account of my trip years ago to a cave called Irimizudou, “The Cave Where Water Runs In,” in Yamaguchi Prefecture, down at the southwest end of Honshu. In this cave, you do have to get down on your hands and knees and crawl in a stream of ice-cold water, with uncompromising stone all around you, pressing in, and the water’s chill seeming to suck the air from your lungs. Even for me, I had to take a deep breath and remind myself, “This is a commercial cave. People do this every day. They go in here, and they come back out.”

      But yeah, I’ve often said that I would LOVE to be able to set up a writing desk in one of the more colossal chambers of Mammoth Cave and crank out fiction down there. (Hmm . . . the National Park Service needs a writer-in-residence program. . . .)

  6. John R. Fultz Says:

    Fred, if that’s the case, youv’e got to visit my native state, Kentucky, and check out the Mammoth Caves. (Maybe while you’re in the states for the 2010 WFC–Ohio is the next state over.)

    • fsdthreshold Says:

      Oh, believe me, John, I am an international PR person for Mammoth Cave! My parents first took me there when I was in lower elementary school, and I would go so far as to say that’s where this whole “underground” motif in my writing most likely came from. That visit ignited a love of caves that led us all over the Midwest for years afterward — we planned every family vacation around caves from then on.

      I’ve been back to Mammoth twice since then, at about 10-year intervals. I’m overdue for a visit! I talked so glowingly about Mammoth Cave in my classes in Japan that one of my adult students even dragged her family there when they were traveling in the U.S. — they went hundreds of miles out of their way to see Mammoth Cave!

      Now here’s an obscure story reference for you: have you ever read the H.P. Lovecraft story that’s actually set in Mammoth Cave? (He refers to the cave by name!) I believe it’s a very early Lovecraft story. I made my mom read it, too, and I remember that we disagreed in our interpretations of the ending.

  7. Catherine Says:

    Cry, the Beloved Country — Alan Paton. He starts by describing a beautiful, fertile hill in South Africa and then shifts us to a dead hill, a hill where people have tilled the land dry; and he doesn’t stop describing there. I think, though, it’s so tied up in his characters (it’s a very situation-driven story) that you don’t notice it unless you’re looking for it.

    Jane Eyre — Charlotte Brontë. Huge, dark settings, a “haunted” house, described in lavish detail. The ceilings are vaulted. But they’re there, and we know where they are. :)

    • fsdthreshold Says:

      Those are both books I should read. I enjoyed the movie version of the first one. And a friend whose opinions I generally trust says Charlotte is “better than” Emily! :-)

  8. I want to go there Says:

    john: I happen to know Mammoth Caves are a Durbin favorite. He’d probably live there if he could! ha ha

    Movies: Fred has always had more than a little of the Dr. Jones syndrome and I am sure he (like myself) is quite jealous of your visit to the pyramids.

    I am no pyschologist (that is my sister’s profession) but I think I can analyze my old friend by saying he must have some (Tolkien) dwarf blood in him. It was always the dwarves he loved in LOTR and in his Dn’D masterpiece. Odd, because his creative talent is more in line with the elves: music, language, poetry …

    C’mon, Fred: time to speak up!

    • fsdthreshold Says:

      Yeah . . . I think who I am is Finrod Felagund — if I were an elf, I would TOTALLY live in Nargothrond! Some elves appreciated the beauty of the deep Earth! Or maybe I’m Thranduil. Deep caves in a deep, cave-like forest — best of both worlds!

      Yes, there’s Dwarvish blood in me, for sure! Ever notice the similarity between the names “Durbin” and “Durin”? When my ancestors cast their lot with Men and began to grow taller, they added the “b” to make the name more Mannish. . . .

      “Malt beer . . . ripe meat off the bone. . . . And they call it a mine — a mine!”

  9. John R. Fultz Says:

    Ha! That’ so cool. I love a good Nargothrond reference!

    • I want to go there Says:

      John — Yes on Nargothrond! And Fred will recall (I think) that Finrod Felagund is my favorite of all the Elf kings in the Silmarillion and that my favorite piece of Tolkien poerty is “The Songs of Power” the battle between Finrod and Sauron on the bridge over Sirion leading to Minas Tirith.
      In the angry (but accurate) words of Hurin “where he (Finrod) fell while running the errand of Thingol of Doriath!”
      Yes, I would have loved Gondolin, but Nargothrond is where I would have wanted to have lived …

  10. Nicholas Ozment Says:

    Hey, I’ve been to Mammoth Cave too! I also strongly recommend a visit to Carlsbad Caverns, should the opportunity ever present itself.

    For interior settings, THE HIGH HOUSE by James Stoddard, and GORMENGHAST by Mervyn Peake, and CASTLE PERILOUS by John DeChancie. (In all three cases, you have a mansion or a castle that is so big it contains worlds and seems to go on forever. The current Vertigo comic-book series HOUSE OF MYSTERY also uses this bigger-on-the-inside conceit very effectively.) I love the evocation of sprawling houses with untold rooms and echoing halls and hidden nooks and crannies. Hmmm… Perhaps my love of this aesthetic is why I’m attracted to such settings the way Durbin is attracted to vast underground caverns. (And yes I was very jealous of your visit to Winchester Mystery House.)

    • fsdthreshold Says:

      I always say that there are two ideal trips I’d love to take in the U.S.:
      1.) a cave tour of Missouri, which is called “the Cave State” — it has hundreds of known caves. Wouldn’t it be fantastic to take a whole summer and just drive around the state, going to every cave that they’d let you into? I guess a camper would be ideal for this, set up as a “mobile writing house.” Write a couple thousand words, see a cave, hike a nature trail, see a cave, write a couple thousand words . . . there’d be a need to eat in there somewhere. . . .

      2.) a tour of Carlsbad Caverns and the Grand Canyon; and there’s a tremendous cave system called Lechuguilla nearby, too. The trip where you ride mules down into the Canyon for like three days. . . . I often think this would be the ideal honeymoon package!

      If anyone is going to Mammoth Cave, as of the last time I went there, you had to make your tour reservations WAY in advance — I’m talking half a year or more. Also, plan to stay at least three days and take several different tours. Different parts of the cave are completely different, and they’re all must-see! My favorite is the Half-Day Tour, but there are lantern tours, shorter tours into the living, “Frozen Niagara” area of the cave, and I believe even a boat tour along a subterranean river. And the state park itself is wonderful, too.

      I love those sprawling indoor settings, too! That was one of the main reasons I was a fan of Richie Rich comics as a kid. His mansion was much bigger on the inside, so big that you could never visit all the rooms in your natural life. I loved the stories in which he’d go exploring.

      Thanks for the book recommendations! I should make a second attempt at THE HIGH HOUSE. A nice edition of the complete GORMENGHAST is right here on my shelf, too. . . .

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