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Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Pattern of Place

By Cynthia Light Brown

Places are not always what we would expect.

I am in the Yunque Rainforest of Puerto Rico right now, on my last night of vacation. (Note: I wrote this on Tuesday and I'm just uploading now.) I think of woods as being quiet places. Maybe a bit of noise at night from an occasional frog. It’s cities that are noisy places.

Ha! If you’ve been in a rainforest – at least a tropical one – you know that they are one of the noisiest places on earth at night. Right now we are high above a swollen stream. Full from a rainstorm this morning, it plunges down the mountainside. The stream of last night has gone from chattering to a heated, loud argument. 

But it is nothing compared with the animals, especially the coqui. The coqui is tiny, as big as your thumb. It is being studied to understand how it can make such a loud noise.

The stream and frogs are a kind of white noise, regular, but the loudest white noise I’ve ever heard. In Pennsylvania, we are wakened by the birds. In the tropics, we are wakened by the quiet.

And I’m hearing all of this because, since there’s no air conditioning, our door to the balcony is open. No air conditioning, because it’s not needed. I wore a sweater this evening when we went to dinner. In July. In the tropics. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh is having a heat wave.

Look closely at the bananas. Which way are they growing? Is that a surprise to you? Would it be to your character?

What are some of the patterns of the place in your writing? Here are a few questions to ask yourself.

  • What and when are the noises? Are they regular, staccato, fluid? Do they blend into the background? How does your character feel about the noises?
  • What is the temperature, humidity, rain? Does it change much between day and night? Seasons?
  • Smells? Use a light touch here – don’t have a smell every other page, but smells are evocative and can set a scene.
  • What is the light like? The sky; can you see it, does it have a presence? Here in the rainforest you can barely see the sky, but at the shore a few miles away you can hardly see anything else. Cities are like rainforests that way; you hardly see the sky, but in a city you hardly see the earth either.
  • Do you see anything unusual in your setting? Would anything stand out to your character? How do they feel in your setting; at home, or out of place, or maybe both?
    I felt like I was a miniature fairy in undr these giant leaves.
  • Touch; what does the air feel like? Sticky? Is it clean to breathe? Do people keep to themselves, arms folded, or are they open, hugging?

What's the detail in your setting that stands out?

It’s the details that tell the reader the pattern of your place, give it fullness.


  1. A wonderful post, Cynthia.

    Hope you enjoyed PR.

  2. Thanks Kitty.

    We had a great time in Puerto Rico. Spent most of our time on the island of Vieques off PR's east coast, which I highly recommend, then a couple of days in the rainforest, which was also great fun. Our timing was good--missed the heat wave. Nice to be back home too though.

  3. I loved the rainforest, too--and I thought I saw a lot, but I didn't see as much as you did!

    The biggest surprise in PR, for me, was the delightfully shrill and loud chirping that filled our hotel courtyard as the first night fell. I asked a staff person what birds sang so loudly at night. That's how I learned about the coqui!