Short Story Environment Setting: Using Little to Say Much

One of the reasons I have a love affair with words is because of the plurality in their meanings.  Take the word “yous/youse” for example.  This plural form of ‘you’ is just an address, but also held within this lovely expression is a clue to where the person speaking is from (New Jersey, Australia, Ireland…).  Depending on the listener’s response, it can also, signal how the speaker fits into his environment. 

Another example of this is found in Japanese.  There are many ways to say ‘I’ (washi, watashi, watakushi, ore, boku, atashi, uchi…) and each articulation of this word reflects an element of the speaker’s self-perception and in some cases, the level of formality between the speaker and the listeners. 

In this post, I’m looking at how we can use the numerous meanings of words to create short descriptions that give readers a strong sense of place.  I’ll be looking at two categories: ‘titles and names’ and props.

Titles & Names

Charles limped down the dusty road with James and Jim.” 

The above seems like a pretty standard sentence that might not evoke much of a sense of place for many readers.  But how about this:

Jaiyesimi limped down the dusty road with Dideoluwa and Boluwatife.” 

Suddenly, the usage of a names gives the reader a clue that this story takes place within the foreign (if you’re not familiar with Nigeria).  If you are Nigerian, it would stand out that all of the characters in the story are Yoruba.

A few examples of authors who have used diverse names in openings are Olufunke Ogundimu in “The Armed Letter Writers,” Jamil Jan Kochai in “Nights in Logar,” and Yoon Choi in “The Art of Losing.”

Aside from names, there are also phrases that can signal place.  A character addressing another as “Your Honor” can signal being in a courtroom addressing a judge.  “Your Highness” can signal being in the presence of royalty, speaking to a child who pretends she a princess, or accusing someone of having a superiority complex.  In addition, there are many, many, many, (did I say many?) titles that can refer to rank in the military, air force, or navy.  A few examples are lieutenant, colonel, major, admiral, captain and commander.

Props

Aside from names and titles, paying attention to objects that are unique in an environment can also give the reader a sense of place. 

Viet Dinh, for example, in “Lucky Dragon” draws the reader into a nautical world by mentioning being “on deck” and by mentioning nautical charts, flotilla, and schools of tuna.  Guy de Maupassant draws attention the luxury of wealthy rooms in “The Necklace” by mentioning, “large drawing-rooms, hung in old silks, of graceful pieces of furniture carrying bric-a-brac of inestimable value…” Myron Taube in “Lupinski” draws attention to the severity of the protagonist’s wife’s condition by highlighting the plastic cover he has to wear to see her. 

What other ways have you seen words used to establish a sense of place?

References

Choi, Yoon, “The Art of Losing” New England Review

Dinh, Viet, “Lucky Dragon” The O. Henry Prize Stories

Guy de Maupassant, “The Necklace,” The World’s Greatest Short Stories,

Ogundimu, Olufunke “The Armed Letter Writers” 2019 Pushchart Prize XLIII

Taube, Myron “Lupinski” 2019 Pushchart Prize XLIII

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