Learning How to Write Place with Caravans, by James A. Michener

Caravans, by James A. Michener

In December, I was perusing my mother-in-law’s large bookshelves for a holiday read, and stumbled across Caravans, by James A. Michener. I’d heard great things about his ability to write place, and learning how to write place is on my (long) list of “Things I Need to Learn to Do Better as a Writer.”

Turns out, it’s both an excellent master study in how to write place–and a great adventure story!

My First Reaction, as a Reader

If this isn’t one of Michener’s best-known, most-beloved books, then I need to read his other stuff. Because if I love them half as much as I loved this book, they’ll be worth my time.

I learned so much about Afghanistan through this novel, waaaaaaaay more than I have ever learned during the seemingly never-ending coverage of the seemingly never-ending war the U.S. has waged against them for the majority of my life.

Michener describes Afghanistan with stunning imagery and such precise detail that it makes me long to visit such a gorgeous country. He describes the country’s history, and the ways its past actively influences its present, with such clarity that even though he wrote the book in the ’60s, current-day Afghanistan makes more sense to me.

And it’s a darn good adventure story that includes a pretty intriguing “What is the meaning of life?” sub-theme.

*SPOILER ALERT — It’s only fair to warn you that there are several spoilers ahead, starting after this picture. I can’t dissect a book if I have to tiptoe around names and events, but I also don’t want to ruin things for you, if you haven’t finished the book yet. So you’ve been warned.

Salang tunnel in the Hindu Kush mountain range

Snow-covered Hindu Kush, Afghanistan | Photo by Sgt. Scott Davis

Another thing I loved about Caravans was the way the protagonist, Mark Miller, grew throughout the story.

When I first started reading, I was constantly distracted by the descriptions of women, Islam, and the culture in Afghanistan. How could he say something like that?! Published in 1963, it made sense that the novel didn’t share the sensibilities of 2018. But it was still hard for me to stay focused on the story when people kept saying such blatantly offensive things.

Except that as I kept reading, I began to realize that this archaic, insulting perspective was Miller’s perspective–not Michener’s. This was part of his narrative arc. As secondary characters challenged Miller’s belief systems and called him out on his shit, he grew and changed. He was a different person by the end of the book, appreciating Afghanistan and its culture in a whole new way.

That being said, Michener also wrote some characters in there who changed for the worst. Ellen, for example, was complicated to begin with, and her justifications for her decisions only spiraled further and further away from motivations I understood. But she still had a complete narrative arc. She thought and felt one way about the meaning of life and society when we met her and she continued to dig further and further into that opinion, until she was also changed through the climactic fight in the tent with Zulfiqar and Dr. Stiglitz. She changed. Though for better or worse is up to each reader’s personal interpretation.

That kind of character growth, in what is essentially an action-adventure book, was a very pleasant surprise.

After Some Percolating, as a Writer

Read this book if you plan to write something heavily steeped in the history and geography of a location, are learning how to write place better, and/or you want to see a master in action.

Mazari Sharif, Afghanistan

Mazari Sharif, Afghanistan | Photo by Farin Sadiq

Learning How to Write Place by Learning From Michener

Someday, I write a novel about Nepal, I want it to feel like Afghanistan feels in Caravans. I want my readers to yearn to visit that incredible country. I want to sweep them up in intense descriptions of landscape, fascinate them with accounts of history, and immerse them in a culture. And I want to master Michener’s ability to evoke the mood of a place.

But how does he do it?

Place Isn’t Just About Setting. There Are Layers.

In Writing Fiction; A Guide to Narrative Craft, by Janet Burroway and Elizabeth Stuckey-French (one of my all-time favorite books on the nuts and bolts of writing), fiction writer Michael Martone says that “a truly effective evocation of fictional setting might resemble those old painted murals in post offices from the 1930s and early ’40s.”

Like this . . .

Learning how to write place by analyzing WPA murals -- "Bauxite Mines" (1942), by Julius Woeltz

Works Progress Administration (or WPA) mural “The Bauxite Mines,” (1942) by Julius Woeltz – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division. More info here. 

Or this . . .

Learning how to write place by analyzing WPA murals --"Sorting the Mail," (1936) by Reginald Marsh

WPA mural “Sorting the Mail,” (1936) by Reginald Marsh – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division. More info here.

Or this . . . (Can you tell how much I looOoOooOve WPA murals?!)

Learning how to write place by analyzing WPA murals-- "Country Post," (1938) by Doris Lee

WPA mural “Country Post,” (1938) by Doris Lee – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division. More info here.

Why do these mural do such a good job evoking setting? And what does this have to do with my writing?

“These murals attempt, by the design of hundreds of details, to convey the simultaneous presence of history and social life of the greater community along with the personal specific struggle of the protagonist. Purely as a practical matter, placing story in such a fertile media will make it easy for things to happen [in a story], for characters to do things.”

-Michael Martone
(emphasis mine)

In other words, history + social life (culture) = a rich background upon which to have your protagonist do things (like struggle and grow). And the background should compliment and propel your character’s story forward. All is in service to the story.

Here’s an Example From the Book

Miller’s first adventure out of Kabul is staying overnight in the city of Ghazni. Almost as soon as he arrives, he witnesses the public execution of a women charged with adultery. In this scene, Michener weaves history and culture to stunning effect.

  • History —  Michener mentions the mullahs’ rule in Afghanistan and the history of such executions in rural areas. Miller’s guide Nur discusses how the country’s culture is slowly changing and becoming more modern (including Russia’s involvement in this).
  • Social Life (Culture) — We see the men’s participation in the execution (and learn from Nur that they expect to continue doing this for life). We also learn how Western-educated men like Nur are against these practices. In this scene, we see the struggled between two different cultures in Afghanistan–the old way and the new way–a struggle that continues to play out throughout the entire book.

All the above, along with Michener’s vivid descriptions of the location and character actions, create a rich tapestry upon which he places Miller’s story.

  • Protagonist’s Struggle — Miller reconciles this new understanding of the mores of rural Afghanistan with what he knows from living in Kabul and befriending men like Nur. He’s beginning to understand the complexities of this country he lives in. He’s learning.

See the layers?!

Michener does this over and over again as Miller travels across Afghanistan. In each place he visits, Miller struggles and grows, all against the backdrop of Afghanistan’s history and culture.

Pamir Mountains, Afghanistan

Pamir Mountains, Afghanistan | Photo by Huib Scholten

In Writing Place, Atmosphere is Everything

“Your fiction must have atmosphere because without it your characters will be unable to breath.”

– from Writing Fiction; A Guide to Narrative Craft, by Janet Burroway and Elizabeth Stuckey-French

Atmosphere includes both:

  1. details of the setting (place, time period, weather, time of day, etc.)
  2. the tone of the language (the qualitative words–the attitude–that the narrative voice uses to describe the setting)
Setting Descriptions Are Baby Steps

When I reread sections of this book in order to understand how Michener wrote place so well, it was easy to pick out how he describes setting. His adjectives are vivid and he describes the sights, sounds, and smells of places well. He’s a good writer.

But it was also to find his descriptions because that’s what my writer brain had been trained to look for. Actually, that’s what my reader’s brain has been trained to do, since I learned to read.

What’s more important than setting description, however, is tone. Tone lies just below the surface of all those descriptions, and tone makes everything.

Tone Determines How Michener Describes Setting

The tone was less immediately obvious and took some reflecting on the novel and some digging.

First, what’s the narrative voice’s attitude toward the place? In the case of Caravans, since the book is in first person, what is Miller’s attitude toward Afghanistan?

It’s curious, for sure. The reader gets so many descriptions of history, culture, and geography because Miller, as a character, is busy absorbing this information. He’s fascinated by it, so we get to be fascinated by it too.

Awestruck. Miller is in awe of this country, so Michener gets to use grand words to describe places, like “beautiful bridges,” “noble, desolate landscape,” and mountains “white in majesty and completely impenetrable.”

And judgmental. We experience conflicts and we watch cultural events through Miller’s Western lens. Certain things stand out to him, and therefore to us, because of his personal biases.

That’s Miller’s attitude, toward life and toward Afghanistan. So it is through that specific lens that we experience absolutely everything in this novel.

Michener could have described Afghanistan any old way.

But by carefully choosing Miller’s attitude toward Afghanistan, he carefully chose the approach he, as the writer, was able to take in describing place. If Michener had made Miller a curmudgeon with a serious lack of attention to detail, he couldn’t write this novel in first person. He couldn’t talk about the grandeur of Afghanistan. It’d be a different novel entirely.

See how everything links together? His protagonist’s very outlook on life has determined the tone of the novel–therefore determining how he writes about place.

Conclusion

If you are learning how to write place, Michener is a worthy writer to study. And Caravans is a great place to start.

In this novel, Michener does more than simply describe locations. He talks about the history and culture of each location, giving the reader important context upon which to build the story. But even then, he goes the important step further and links that historic and social context to his protagonist’s struggle.

But it was Michener’s choice of (and respect for the importance of) tone that makes this novel a great example of how to write place. He wrote this novel in first person, so we see Afghanistan through Miller’s eyes. All his descriptions fit into Miller’s worldview, and we interpret things the way Miller interprets them. And therefore, because Michener chose his protagonist to be enthusiastic, adventurous, and fascinated by history and culture, we get to experience Afghanistan with the same big-eyed wonder of a traveler.

When I read Caravans, I felt like Miller wrote me a letter and told me I had to visit Afghanistan. And now I really really really want to go.

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