The Language of Place

Chuck's Mama's Place
In the language of our current home, this is “Chuck’s Mama’s Place.”

Earlier this week when I wrote about going out on the Hogback on our family farm to think, read, and write, I realized not everyone knows that word. A hogback is simply a hill that slopes like the back of a hog, but on our farm it’s a specific place–The Hogback. It isn’t just any hill of that type–it’s a specific hill.

Which got me thinking about how places have language attached to them. On our farm, there’s the Indian Mound, Sheep Rock, the Rexroad Place, the Little Barn, the Gas Well, the Old House, and on and on. Most of you readers have a limited idea of what I’m talking about, but my parents, my brothers, and even some folks who live in the local community know exactly where the Rexroad Place is. It’s the property the Rexroad family used to own. Sheep Rock is the big rock you can see from the Evergreen Road where farmers used to shelter their sheep.

It’s almost like knowing a foreign language. And speaking that language ties me more deeply to the place–makes me feel like I belong in a singular way. So maybe I should offer a similar language in my novels. Give the characters a shorthand for the setting that the reader become privy to. Which then makes readers members of the “club.” And once readers have been initiated, maybe they’ll be more likely to stay . . .

In her Mitford series, Jan Karon gives Father Tim and Cynthia a language to describe the view from a particular point in town. It’s “the land of counterpane.” I like that I know that. Makes me feel like a local. Makes me want to return to Mitford first chance I get.

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7 thoughts on “The Language of Place

  1. Yes, but be careful – if the readers don’t feel ‘in’ they’ll feel ‘out’. I’ve read some promising books in which the characters felt like a closed circle, and I couldn’t identify with them. Some of Andrew Greely’s books do this – they’re about Chicago’s ‘elite’, and their verbal shorthand and self-assurance made me feel like a peon. I didn’t really care about them.

    But sometimes it works beautifully – again from Greely – a fictional Chicago church get the nickname “St. Simp and the Seven Wimps”. It’s really named after a female saint (whose name starts out something like ‘Simp” and seven martyrs. But the cheeky irreverence adds sparkle to the story.

    And yes, Greely is one of my favourites.

  2. Molly B

    loved hearing all those names. . .my grandparents had a house at Evergreen ( I think it is pretty ramshackle now). Where I grew up in VA, we had Pumpkin Holler, Rabbit Squat, Turkey Trot, the Slide, Waddletown and yes, a pretty famous party spot called Hogback. : )

  3. Sometimes names from non-fiction can be eerily evocative.

    There is a place is southern Egypt called ‘eight bells’, described as a row of eight hills, ‘shaped like halma-men’ (halma is an old board game – the author’s referring to the traditional playing pieces.

    When I can’t sleep I think of those hills, standing eternal sentinel in a silent desert, touched with gold at sunrise and mauve at the close of day.

    I wonder if anyone else has been hooked by such a name, of a place they’ll never see?

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