The Mark Blog

GREETINGS FROM DALMATIA: EXERCISES IN IMAGINATION

Although it would be nice, I’m not writing this from Dalmatia. However, in many ways, I may as well be. Most of my manuscript takes place on or around islands on the Dalmatian coast. Ironically, I haven’t visited this part of the world in a decade, so I’m constantly trying to conjure up the landscape to help with writing the setting.

About ten years ago I was working on a nonfiction book set in Croatia. I thought a couple of weeks spent over there would be helpful. Not only would I be able to visit family, I would also have hours of unobstructed writing time. I could immerse myself and the writing in a specific place.

Lots of writing did get done. I’d wake up in the morning and head over to the Kalilarga, Zadar’s main thoroughfare. I’d sit in a café and write fiction that had nothing to do with the project I was writing at the time. Somehow, being in the place I wanted to write about proved to be too overpowering. Too real. There was so much of it surrounding me. What to focus on?

I suppose what Hemingway wrote in A Moveable Feast is true: “Maybe away from Paris I could write about Paris as in Paris I could write about Michigan.”

The stories I’m currently working with are tricky from a setting point of view. Even though the places are real locations, the stories are set in the past. Times have changed, and Dalmatia has changed even more. For example, twenty years ago there weren’t any cars on the central coast islands I visited. Today there are paved roads, with all types of cars roaming about. Plus pollution and noise. Since all of the stories are set 20-60 years ago, I need to capture a place of the past.

Over the years, I’ve picked up tips in workshops or in books. Here are a couple of my favorite writing exercises that help me conjure up the Dalmatian setting when I need help:

1. Tree Map: Make a tree map with five branches or sections of a piece of paper. Label each “branch” or section with a sense (sight, touch, smell, sound, taste). Imagine the setting. Recall and chart as many details as possible under each sense.

2. Active Imagination: Close your eyes, relax, take a couple of deep breaths. Imagine you’re in the setting. Spend some time there. Take in the sights, focus in on what you feel, what is happening around you, what you see. Open your eyes and write about it. Some people prefer to quickly write as they’re imagining the place with their eyes open. I’ve never been able to coordinate all of that, but it’s worth a whirl. Warning: if one is tired and lacking caffeine, it’s possible to doze off. Be careful not to stay in your locale of choice for too long!

3. Timed Talk: Get a friendly ear to listen to you. Set a time limit (usually 5 minutes is enough). Talk about the story setting until time runs out. You can talk about anything concerning your setting. Your friend can only listen. Even if there’s a lull, you’ll eventually remember a sight or a sound and start talking again. You may even remember (or create, if it is a fictional place) a detail you had forgotten.