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Written by
Susan Conley
July 2013
Written by
Susan Conley
July 2013

What Territory Is Your Book Staking Out? Know the Answer Before You Try to Sell Your Manuscript

When I was working on the final, final, final draft of my novel it already had a title, but this working title only got me so far in the book finishing business. It had served me well. But I had to let it go. That’s when I sat down and did one of those hard distillations I talked about in my previous post, where I asked myself what my novel was really about.

Here are the things I already knew about my novel: The book was set in Paris. My characters were deeply imbedded in their lives on the Right and Left Bank of the Seine. They had jobs that they rode the metro to get to. They had favorite creperies and Indian restaurants dotting the 6th and 7th arrondisements.

I sat in a small cabin up North in coastal Maine, not so far from where I’d grown up, thinking hard on a new title, and I had one of those crystallizing writing moments we only get maybe a few times in the life of a manuscript. I saw how almost everything in my novel had to do with the notion of place. In many ways the novel was a love letter to Paris—not the Paris of navy berets and good, soft cheeses. The Paris I was writing about was about vegetable curries and working-class immigrant neighborhoods. 

Maps were woven into almost every chapter of the novel. My narrator’s slightly crazed father even makes maps for a living. It’s the 1970s, and he spends months out in the Sonora Desert in Arizona taking coordinates for maps the old-fashioned way.

And many of the characters in my novel are displaced—from their home countries. From their families. So as much as my novel had to do with Paris, it also had to do with what happens when we’re dislocated from the home places (and people) we know and love best.

I got busy working in that Maine cabin. I knew that in order to really finish the book and imbue it with a true sense of place, I had to know my landscape more. I’d lived in France before and I’d traveled throughout it a whole lot. But what was the name of the second stop on the metro line that my narrator took to get to work at the school in the 9th arrondisement? Where did she buy wine? What roads did she take to the hospital when she had to drive her brother there after he got sick? These were all things the novel needed to answer.

Because if the novel had staked out the territory of place, with a capital P, then it had to deliver. This was all rather anxiety-provoking for me, there at the start of that final draft in that small rental cabin. I realized how much this sense of place was crucial to almost every aspect of the novel—how place was the door through which a reader would enter the novel. But how to render Paris? How to make it fully come alive?

It is detailed and niggly and unglamorous work to make place become real in a book—any book. But it can also be great fun, and it’s so often vital to the whole success of the enterprise. When place was really working for me, when I was able to achieve liftoff and make Paris come to life, then the city acted as a fully realized character in my novel. And this is no small thing. The city did a lot of work for me. Because if you can capture place, then you usually capture locale and often also a kind of cultural tone that doesn’t need any more explication. Which is a gift. And since there are very few actual gifts given to you in the long, hard, solo journey that is your writing life, if you get one of these gifts of place, or a gift from some other rich territory that your book happens to stake out (like Russian food or the 1960’s peace movement or mid-century art), receive the gift with gratitude. And thank the writing Gods.

If you can get your characters drinking in a tiny, cave-like jazz bar in the 6th arrondisement where the walls are made of slightly damp limestone, then this sense of place—this jazz bar—will do a lot of good work for you in establishing mood. Then your narrator won’t have to talk so much about the jazz bar, which is always a good thing because in general I fear our narrators talk a little too much when place could be doing even more heavy lifting.

What I did that most helped me nail this sense of place was to make horribly messy, almost unreadable hand drawn maps. I found some poster paper and I began drawing in minute detail the places that my characters lived and worked and orbited. The map was completely out of scale. But it’s a little window into my personal craziness.

My hand-drawn map of Paris is chicken scrawl, and even though I can't really read it anymore and it looks like Greek to me now, this map was my Bible. I studied it and added to it every day. It showed me the way to my new title. The title I kept. The title I borrowed from a line of Gertrude Stein’s, which ends: “Then Paris Was the Place.”

Susan Conley is the author of the novel Paris Was the Place, forthcoming from Knopf on August 6th, 2013 and the memoir The Foremost Good Fortune (Knopf 2011). She’s written for The New York TimesThe Daily BeastThe Huffington Post and Maine Magazine. You can follow Susan on Facebook and Twitter and at her website.

Photo credit: At the top - Jean Baptiste Bourguignon d'Anville, "Quatrième plan de la ville de Paris" via Wikimedia Commons


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  • Susan Conley

    Thanks for the thoughts and comments all. There are so many things to consider in grounding a novel. So many frames to use. But place can be a good one. 

  • Yehudit Reishtein

    What you say about actively developing the sense of place within a story made me think about books where place is such an important part of the story, and the need to use all one's senses in description to develop the scene for the reader. It's often the little details that nail it, like the dampness on your jazz bar's walls. In movies of books I've read, as often as I have been startled by the looks of the characters (I had seen him as taller, she should not be blond), I have been startled by a betrayal of the author's place--the movie just did not get it right. 

  • Lisa Thomson

    I enjoyed hearing about your creative process and how Place was central to your novel.  Sometimes the place is very nondescript in a novel and it becomes all about the season for example. It's fun to play with this idea.  You found your new title from your theme of Place, so cool. I wonder what the original working title was? Thanks, Susan for sharing this.

  • Mardith Louisell

    Great post, Susan. I particularly like that you tell us exactly what you did to make place come through and do its work - the maps you drew and used, the revisiting the city (probably on the internet) to figure out exact places, and how much work is involved in truly making a piece about place.