Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Power of Place



By Lisabet Sarai




The roar of an unmuffled motor roused them from their embrace. A narrow boat with a high, sharp prow raced passed them, leaving the barge rocking gently in its wake. ‘A long-tail boat, as they are called,’ said Somtow. ‘A modern adaptation of the traditional dragon boats that plied the river in past centuries.’ He kissed her again, lightly. ‘Personally, I prefer a more leisurely pace.’

Katherine stood up and leaned on the gunwale, taking in the myriad sights of the river. Stretches of verdant jungle alternated with rickety-looking wooden houses, perched on stilts at the river's edge. Women in sarongs squatted on the porches of these shacks, doing laundry or cooking on charcoal braziers. The delicious smell of frying garlic came to her across the water.

She saw the slick heads of children, heard their shrill cries as they splashed each other. A flat-bottomed boat piled high with bananas passed their barge, propelled by a long pole in the hands of an elderly woman in a conical straw hat.

Then she caught sight of tiled roofs and gilded spires through the palm trees. It was a wat, a Buddhist temple, inaccessible except by water. A winding stairway led from the complex of buildings down to the shore. At water level sat a small pavilion, with the typical peaked roof and upturned eaves. Katherine saw a young man draped in orange robes seated there, pensively watching the river flow by. The monk looked up as they passed. Katherine felt an ache in her chest. His beautiful, serious face, lit by the late-morning sun, was too perfect.

Immersed in the scenes on the riverside, Katherine started when she felt Somtow's hands on her hips. She twisted around to look at him.

‘No,’ he said, ‘please, just stay the way you are.’ She obeyed, turning back the river and leaning her elbows on the railing. She felt her skirt being drawn up, until it was around her waist. Next, her knickers were pulled down until they were at her ankles.

From Raw Silk

My stories are about places almost as much as they are about people. In many cases, my settings act almost like additional characters. They establish the story context, generate conflicts and influence the action. Often, the characters only make sense in the place where I've put them.

Kate's odyssey of sexual self-discovery in Raw Silk could not have occurred anywhere else but in Thailand. Only in Bangkok could she have become entangled with a Dom who runs a go-go bar and a minor prince, or been seduced by the free-wheeling sensuality of the Thai culture.

Kathleen's topic for this week is “Writing Where You Know”. I know Thailand fairly well, having lived there for several years and visited frequently after we moved away. Bangkok is in my blood and spills out in many of my stories. I try to capture its contradictions and fascinations, and mirror them in my characters.

Places seduce me. I soak up their essence and then try to recreate them on the page. I was once lucky enough to live in Boston's historic Beacon Hill district for a year. The cobbled streets called to me. I walked them in a daze, drunk with history. I worked to capture this sense of past enduring into the present in Incognito, which has action set in Beacon Hill in both contemporary and Victorian times.


Miranda felt delightfully free as she strolled down Charles Street, enjoying the afternoon. It was only May, but already the trees were in full leaf, dappling the brick side walks with patterns of shadow. Girls passed her in tank tops and shorts, legs and arms bare and already burnished with sun. She felt warm in her long-sleeved pullover and overalls.

She loved this district, with its historic buildings and narrow lanes. Most of the town houses dated from the middle of the previous century. They offered a delightful jumble of architectural detail; wrought-iron balconies, fanlight transoms, stained glass, mullioned windows, Corinthian columns. Many of the brick-fronted buildings were draped with ivy. Some were traversed by aged trunks as thick as her wrist, twining around doors up to the many-chimneyed roofs. The tall windows offered glimpses of chandeliers, Oriental carpets, Siamese cats, and bookshelves that stretched floor to ceiling.

In Beacon Hill, gas lamps lined all the streets, burning day and night. Her own apartment looked out on a private alley, flanked by ivy-hung brick walls and lit by gas lights. Miranda appreciated the irony of her living in an environment that dated from the same period as her research. Perhaps, she sometimes thought playfully, I had a previous life as a Victorian matron.

Most of Beacon Hill was entirely residential, but Charles Street was lined with shops and caf├ęs. There were many vendors of books and antiquities; Miranda loved to rummage through the crowded, chaotic shops, savouring the atmosphere of the past, although she rarely made a purchase.

She entered one of these places now, a dim, comfortable space half below street level. She had to duck her head as she entered. A silvery bell tinkled to announce her arrival.

The proprietor, an energetic, fussy old man with wire spectacles, knew her by sight. “Hello, hello,” he said as he emerged from a back room. “Can I help you find anything today?”

Miranda smiled. “No, thank you. I’m just browsing at the moment.”

“Well, if I can be of any assistance, just let me know.”

Miranda wandered happily through the shop. It was much larger than it first appeared, with several rooms stretching backward into the building. The front room, near the street, was crowded with furniture of obsolete categories, armoires, commodes, carved dressing tables surmounted by triple mirrors. There were other rooms with porcelain, jewellery, cutlery, iron fittings, tarnished brass. Finally, Miranda found herself in the book room.

Books were piled everywhere, in boxes, on shelves, in pillars that reached up from the middle of the floor. Although most were in English, Miranda noticed volumes in French, Russian, and Arabic. The room was veiled in dust, but Miranda did not mind. She loved the rich smell of the leather bindings, the tarnished gold embossing, the fragile texture of the old paper.

-- From Incognito

The shop Miranda visits actually exists, or at least it did back when I lived on Charles Street. Miranda's apartment borrows a lot from the one we rented, with its windows filled with wavy glass and its rickety fire escape overlooking the brick-lined back court. It was easy for me to imagine Beacon Hill in Beatrice's time (the Victorian era). At night I could see her ghost tripping along the cobbles, veiled, on her way to an assignation with a stranger.

Of course, not every place that I've been is exotic. That doesn't stop me from using those locations in my tales. When I was in graduate school I had a boyfriend from Nebraska and spent quite a bit of time there. That flat state stretching across the middle of America has found its way into a number of my stories.

The tractor was acting up again. I was on my knees in the straw, surrounded by greasy parts, when Sally came running into the barn.

"There's a tornado coming, Joe. Heard it just now on the North Platte radio station."

I looked her over. Her hair had half-escaped from her barrette and was floating in red-brown wisps around her ears. Her apron was damp; she must have been washing the lunch dishes. She was breathing hard from her run, ample breasts rising and falling under her print dress. I saw worry in her eyes, justifiable worry.

Twisters are no joke. When one comes roaring across the corn fields, all you can do is hide. In '96 we lost a barn and two horses, while we shivered together in the crawl space, holding each other tight and listening to the wind scream. After that, I built a proper cellar. I might not be able to save our property, but our lives were a different story.

I nodded to her, already covering the parts with a tarp and weighting it down. "Open the house windows, lock the door, and meet me in the cellar. I'll just be a few minutes." Without another word she went to follow my instructions.

Already I could feel that weird electricity in the air, that heaviness that makes it hard to draw breath. The horses were restless. I opened their stalls, so that they would have a chance if the building collapsed. They huddled nervously in the corners. Leaving the upper windows open wide to equalize the pressure, I locked the doors and headed for the bulkhead.

The sky was a sickly green. A mass of inky thunderheads sat ominously on the horizon. It was perfectly still, no hint of a breeze stirring the July afternoon, as I swung open the doors and headed down the concrete stairs.

I was mighty proud of the storm cellar. It stood some distance from the house, just east of Sally's kitchen garden. I had heard of folks who survived a twister in their cellar but who were trapped when the house collapsed on top of it. My cellar was spacious, twelve feet by fourteen, with a ceiling high enough to accommodate my six foot frame.

It was well-equipped. It had a little refrigerator (which I kept stocked with beer) that ran off a car battery, a good supply of canned goods and fresh water, a comfortable double mattress and some directors chairs, plenty of battery-powered lights and candles. Not to mention the flogging bench and the bondage frame that I had built in my spare time, and a reasonable assortment of home-crafted floggers, paddles and dildos.

-- From “Twister”, in Rough Caress

I've been fortunate to have travelled more than most people. Foreign locales almost always stir up a story or two. Here's a snippet set in Amsterdam.

"You know me. The coolest of the cool."

But I'm not. In fact I've been obsessed ever since last night, when Jane and I wandered through the red light district, staring at the women who waited behind the glass in their rose-tinted rooms. We wove our way through clumps of nervous, intoxicated men who were all staring, too. I could smell their sweat, underneath the beer and the pot smoke. I could feel their lust. It infected me.

They barely noticed us, two teenagers in jeans, although the tight denim in my crotch was so wet, I half-expected they'd catch my scent and turn to me. They had eyes only for the bodies displayed in the rows of windows lining the canals.

Some of the women were ripe, blond, Slavic-looking, their breasts exploding out of their lace brassieres. Others were slight, deliberately child-like in Gidget-inspired bikinis or brief plaid kilts. There was a Brazilian beauty with golden skin and coffee-colored eyes; a voluptuous African princess with strings of ruby-hued beads dangling in her ebony cleavage; a serious-looking brunette wearing dark-framed glasses who sat, shapely legs crossed, like a secretary waiting to take dictation.

Some of the women posed. Others danced suggestively, or made lewd gestures at their prospective customers. There were masked women in leather, snapping riding crops against their boots. There were women whose pierced nipples and labia showed clearly through their translucent garments.

Men clustered around the dimly-lit windows like moths hovering by a candle. Mostly they'd just look, inflamed by the mere thought of all this available flesh. Sometimes I'd see a hushed conversation through a half open glass door. Such conversations might end with the man turning away, disappointed, rejected, or perhaps simply unwilling to pay the asking price. Other times the door would open wider, just enough to admit the supplicant. Then it would close and the red velvet curtains would be drawn, hiding the rest of the dance.

Those curtained windows drew me. I couldn't stop imagining what might be going on behind them. I knew it was a straight commercial transaction in most cases, a workman-like blowjob, or a quick, bored fuck. Still, I imagined occasional revelations, epiphanies, ecstasies -- meetings of strangers pre-destined to be lovers, brief but unbearably intense conflagrations of lust, lewd and mystical connections that would live in his memory, or hers, long after the curtains were flung open again.

I'm nineteen. I've had enjoyable but ultimately frustrating sex with two boys my age. I know that, practical as I am, I'm a bit of a romantic. Otherwise, I would not have continued to roam the red-lit alleys long after Jane gave up and went back to the hotel in disgust. As the Oude Kerk chimed two AM, I wandered up Molensteeg and down Monnikenstraat like some horny ghost. The crowds had thinned. The curtains were mostly drawn. Some of open windows were empty. Next to them were the signs: KAMERS TE HUUR. Windows for rent.

-- From “Shades of Red”, originally published in Yes, Ma'am: Erotic Stories of Female Dominance.

I've written stories set in London, Prague, Montego Bay, Luang Prabang, and Siem Riep – all of which have been destinations for my real world journeys. Much of what I write is contemporary. Occasionally, though, I'll visit a place where history calls to me. In 2000 my husband and I spent ten amazing days in Provence. We visited the ruined abbey of Thoronet not far from Avignon. Wandering through the vaulted stone chambers, I had a strangely vivid sense of what it would be like to have been a part of that community of devotion, back in the twelfth century.

When my brother’s life was spared by the wasting fever, my father consecrated me to the Church as his thanks for answered prayer. This was seven years ago, just after my first monthly bleeding. I did not mind being sent to the abbey; I was thus saved from the rough and grimy hands of the neighboring lord, to whom my father originally planned to wed me. “The claims of the Lord overrule the poor intentions of men,” he told me when he left me with the sisters at Thoronet. “May your virginity be a gift that forever glorifies God.”

As a girl, I found the simple, orderly life of the convent a comfort. The sisters were strict but never cruel. There was always work to do, but it was the sort of labor that satisfies: tilling the garden, tending the vineyard or the convent’s goats, baking bread. I slept well on my straw pallet, in the dormitory with the other novices.

Seven times daily, we knelt on the cold stone floor of the chapel and prayed. I loved the stark bareness of that sanctuary. The flickering light of the altar candles scarcely reached the shadows of the vaulted roof. The gold-encrusted crucifix on the altar shone as if lit from within. You are the light of the world, Christ had said, and there in the chapel I was suffused with that light.

I especially loved the Compline service, though sometimes it meant a rude awakening and a stumbling through midnight corridors. In the heart of night, the chapel was full of mystery. With the other women, I raised my voice to sing the hymns of praise. The soaring melodies made me ache with joy.

Our songs came, the superior told us, from Mother Hildegard, whose abbey on the Rhine was one of the centers of our Benedictine order and whose visions blessed us all. As I sang, I dreamed of mystic encounters, of being tested in my faith like the virgin saints.

-- From “Communion”, in Fire: Short Stories.


Of course, there are many places I haven't visited (yet!) I've set a few stories in locales where I don't have personal experience. My paranormal romance Serpent's Kiss takes place in a mountainous village in Guatemala. Getaway Girl works hard to capture the atmosphere of a real North Yorkshire village called Kirkby Malzeard. (Ashley Lister helped me a lot with that one!) And one of my favorite recent stories is set on a tea plantation in the Assam hills, in the waning days of the British Empire.

The rain drops are Lakshmi’s tears. That is what Lalida had said—tears of pity wept by Vishnu’s consort at the sad state of mankind. From the sheltered veranda, Priscilla watched sheets of rain sweep relentlessly across the land. The silver curtain alternately hid and revealed the shapes of the green hills rising in the distance.

Priscilla swallowed the last of her biscuit and leaned back in the rattan chair, drawing her shawl around her shoulders. She knew, from the past week’s experience, that the downpour would end in a few hours. The lush wet bushes would sparkle in the sun, as though someone had scattered handfuls of jewels over their leaves. For now, the muted hues of the landscape matched her mood.

“More tea, Madam?” Lalida stole up behind her on bare feet, her orange sari like a streak of fire in the grey morning.

“Not for me, but please bring a fresh pot for Mr. Archer.”

“Yes, Madam.” The maid hurried away, leaving Priscilla alone again with her reveries.

Had it really been only a month ago that they had arrived in India? It seemed like a lifetime. She could barely remember the streets of London, the bustle and the noise, the clatter of hooves on the pavement, the horns and the backfiring engines of the autos vying with the carriages for space. It was so quiet here on the plantation. All she could hear was the hiss of the rain sluicing down.

-- From Monsoon Fever

I've never visited Assam, though I have been to India. But after working for weeks on Priscilla's tale, seeing the world through her eyes, I feel as though I know the place. I see it. I smell it. Research, imagination and analogy help me to bridge the gaps in my experience.

Some authors don't seem to spend much time or effort defining a particular locale for their stories. For me, one of the first questions that I ask myself is “where?” Move the tale from one location to another and it often becomes a totally different story. That is the power of place.

8 comments:

  1. Lisabet, utterly fascinating, thank you.
    Warm hugs,
    Paul.

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  2. Lisabet,
    Part of why I love reading your work is your ability to transport me to those places. It makes me want to be there too.

    Love the excerpts. They take me back to some favorite reading.

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  3. Lisabet,

    I'm fairly sure that the first time I encountered your writing was in one of the Erotic Travel Tales titles.

    Thank you for allowing me a glimpse into these undiscovered countries.

    Ash

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  4. I was transfixed by your prose. Seemingly effortless descrition takes one directly into the scene. Excellent writing.

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  5. I especially like the way your novel Raw Silk brings the reader into the world and underworld of Thailand. It has a kind of modernized pulp fiction quality of romance and adventure. And chili-pepper sex.

    Garce

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  6. Gee, thanks to all of you!

    Praise from other writers is in some ways more valuable than praise from "plain old readers" (if there is such a thing). Even if it doesn't pay the bills ;^)

    Warmly,
    Lisabet

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  7. In my book, "Guardian," I wrote about places I'd never been before, too. Fortunately, I had contacts in those places, and was able, through pictures and phone calls, to be able to present those areas with reasonable accuracy.

    Great post. Thanks for reminding us of the importance of place/setting.

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  8. Hello, Katie,

    Thanks for visiting!!

    Warmly,
    Lisabet

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