Sunday, February 4, 2007

Where Y'at?

Status: 23,800 words (a little behind)

I'm up stupidly early this morning and thinking about setting.

Minnesota was home once. So was New Orleans. Now it's Christchurch, New Zealand. In between I've seen big chunks of the US and Europe, the Middle East, China and Australia. Maybe a bit more I've forgotten, since I'm prone to forgetting the odd detail.

This morning I'm watching FARGO on dvd, and tomorrow is Waitangi Day here in NZ. As a tip of the hat, this post's title comes from a common greeting down in New Orleans.

We've all read books or seen movies that could've been set geographically anywhere. Some stories just don't require it. I've written a few of those myself. Those stories are set somewhere, to be sure, but they don't really have to be. Leather Tales was set in Minnesota, but it could have just as easily been Cleveland or New York, or (with a few small changes to firearms and transportation) the Old West, some quasi-medieval fantasy realm or outer space.

If the characters and their conflicts (the psychological geography, if you will) are vivid enough, the reader may not notice a pale or generic setting. Two of my absolute favorite authors are sometimes guilty of this: John D. McDonald and Robert E. Howard. I love both their work, and both evoke a sense of place beautifully, but setting was still a weak point.

Conan (and Krull, and Bran Mak Morn, et al) traveled far and wide, but the places he visits remind me of the time I had a four hour layover in Memphis. I know it's a vibrant city with a rich heritage, but mostly I just had a cup of coffee in a diner that could have been any diner anyplace. Maybe that's because REH wasn't much of a traveler himself. He was imagining stuff second-hand.

John D McDonald, on the other hand, definitely definitely went to his locales. Lots of research, to the point where you wish he'd maybe shut up a little about it. Thing is, Travis McGee (and many but not all of his other heroes) could have been having his adventures in Mexico, Hawaii, Jamiaca, etc. right back home for the most part, and I often suspected the author of looking for a way to write his holiday off on his taxes.

Sometimes authors actively deny setting. I think F Scott Fitzgerald was trying to make a point that the lives of the wealthy were one long swirl of drinks, and that the houses, restaurants, and hotel bars all had a numbing sameness to them. Or maybe that's just the way it seemed to him and Zelda.

Then I think about James Lee Burke's New Iberia, Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar, Dickens's London, VS Naipal's Trinidad, Carl Hiassen's South Florida, George Pelecanos's Washington DC or the wildly different New Yorks of Tom Wolfe and Andrew Vachss. So vivid and real, they're practically characters of their own.

Derry, Maine and Tuonela, Wisconsin aren't even real, but they sure feel that way.

And one thing all those places have in common: the stories set there couldn't be set anywhere else.

My initial temptation to set my work in Christchurch was convenience. I actually walk the neighborhoods and talk to the sort of people who show up in my books. And I do love it here. This place is home like no other has ever been for me.

But then I saw what was unique about this setting. Cops don't carry guns here, but criminals do. We face a rising crystal meth problem (called P here), but there's virtually no cocaine, and certainly no crack. Prostitution is legal, the drinking age is only eighteen, and Christchurch has just 300,000 people but a raging heroin problem.

Suddenly, my city was trying to tell me stories about itself.

Sometimes we set a story in a certain place because we love the place (I work off the odd bit of homesickness with Minnesota settings), or because the research is easy (putting that holiday, or that degree in Medici Italian History to use, for example). And sometimes that love or that research shines through. It can be powerful.

But even more powerful is when a writer goes past the love, past the research, gets at something of the spirit of their setting. What about your setting (or historical period, or SF/F world) makes your story unique? Or put it another way: what story can only be told in your setting?


Charles Gramlich said...

I'm a big fan of MacDonald's too. In fact, I still have a few of his books I haven't read and I dole them out to myself as rewards. Some of the McGee stuff seems to have more setting. The Busted Flush comes alive for me, for example. But I agree that many of his settings are fairly generic. Howard's "taverns" are certainly generic, but I don't know if I'd agree with you about some of his places, like the underground city in Red Nails. Interesting debate, however.

I've been using a town called "Deerhaven, Arkansas" for many of my stories. It's set in the Ozark Mountain around where I grew up and is losely based on my hometown.

Steve said...

I really should give myself more than fifteen or so minutes to write these blogs. I sort of meant to say that the Busted Flush and the South Florida around it were very powerful settings, but then Travis would go on vacation or something.

The underground city Red Nails, or that fort deep in the Pictish wilderness were both awesome, lingering locales. Both were quite isolated, dark, womb- or coffin-like. Psychological spaces more than physical, and both made the hair stand up on my arms! Otherwise, it's like there's a lot of 'tavern' or 'desert' or 'palace' in REH's work.

Or maybe my perceptions have been shaded by the knockoffs, and by L Sprague DeCamp's comment that it was easy to 'Conan-ize' REH's gangster stories and westerns. The heroes, villains and girls were apparently more or less the same, just change the guns to swords or bows and Bob's your uncle.

I'm the same way with my little cache of unread McDonalds. I picked up a stack from a trip to the States a couple years ago and dole them out sparingly.

Deerhaven, Arkansas: I bet the place hangs in your mind and begs to be written about! Look forward to reading some...