Wednesday, September 26, 2007
Thursday, September 20, 2007
Today, I'm going to talk about a different, but also *very* important kind of setting. And confess one of the sins of my past.
The setting I'm talking about today is the kind that that lives in the writer's heart. For many of us, there are places that simply sink their roots deep and never let go.
I love John D MacDonald's work, and especially his evocative sense of place and time. The stories themselves are the sort of elemental struggle that could happen anywhere, and sometimes did. His two-guys-killing-each-other took place in the Rust Belt and the South Pacific, in Chicago and Mexico. But what we most remember is Florida.
JDM wrote about Florida the way I've heard old people talk about their first loves. He had the talent to tap into the beauty and poetry (and sadness) of his love for a vanishing world.
People often talk about Dickens using London as a character. For me, characters engage in conflict, and environments seldom do. What's wanted is a term to describe that powerful sense of place, so different from the run-of-the-mill. It's like the difference between seeing Shakespeare done on a bare stage, and Shakespeare where somebody's taken the trouble to build the castle staircases for the big swordfight in Act II.
I think the main thing with Dickens was his deep intimacy and hatred-tinged love of London. He wrote other places and even other times, but those works lacked something of the power that he wielded in his own lair.
And it doesn't always have to be the world outside our windows, either. Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert Howard set their adventures in places they'd never been. John Connolly still lives in Ireland, but he creates a Maine in which Joseph Conrad would feel at home, on the dark frontiers of the immortal soul.
My own lost love is Minnesota. It was the place I landed when I left home at 17, and it's the place where I learned to be kind and decent and in many ways different from what I might have become. I love its summer heat and winter ice, spring snows clinging to pools of shadow and the snap and rustle of autumn leaves. All of it was so different from the South of my childhood, and that wide prairie cast a spell that still lingers.
I shall now confess my sin.
The first thing I ever completed was a novel-length comic called Leather Tales. The story grew out of my fascination with people trying to change. The way some recognize the paths of their own destruction and do nothing. How those same forces return again and again even for the ones who are trying to do better. How violent legacies are never really let go.
Sadly, I chose the story trope of lesbian hitmen taking on the mob. My fan mail was, ah, interesting. But that's, as they say, another story.
I was working 40-60 hours a week as a tattooist at the time, so work went slow. It took me three years to write and draw the first hundred-odd pages. Three. Years.
A lot changes in three years. I wasn't the same person I'd been when I started. Hell, I didn't have the same job or even live in the same country! One day, I noticed something.
And once I'd noticed, I couldn't look away. Like a train wreck.
I'd stayed pretty limber with the figure-drawing, but years of tattooing had atrophied my ability to work in prespective. Backgrounds were *hard*. And when I finally did get it right, they were boring. Boring, boring, booooring, Sidney. Boring.
Mister Clever that I was, I'd found the perfect solution: I set the whole story in a hotel room. A dark hotel room. Ha! Atmosphere! Ha, shadows! Ho ho ho, no one will know!
By then I was a hundred sixty pages in, three and a half years of work by that point, and it was awful. Really, truly, world-class awful. Not I'll-get-better awful, not I-hate-my-hair-this-morning-and-all-my-work-too awful. But just, honestly, flat and dull and (shudder) boring.
I'd taken the lazy approach to setting, and been given the lazy man's payment. In the end, I sucked it up and spent a couple months retraining in perspective drawing. I threw out all but five pages of that work and reframed the story so that those first 150+ took place in six pages. Six. Took me less than a week.
And those pages were heavy on atmosphere. They were invested with a sense of place. They could have been set anywhere, but I chose a place and a time of year that spoke to me of second chances and new beginnings, of a fresh clean world and the possiblity of redemption.
I closed my eyes and drew Minnesota.
Tuesday, September 18, 2007
We consider our methods to be 'event-driven' (plotted) or 'character-driven' (seat of the pants), but when I look closer, how much of fiction might be said to be 'setting-driven'?
Science-fiction, fantasy and Westerns are certainly characterized by their settings. But I don't want to go there, at least not yet.
Right now I'm thinking of a different kind of setting drive: stories whose inital 'kick' (for the writer) is their setting, and where the character's environment directly impacts their actions.
Lee Child gets his ideas for the Jack Reacher books on vacation. He doesn't spend a lot of time in 'his towns', and doesn't feel it hurts him. Reacher is a drifter only in town for a few days, so it probably helps Child to see the world through those eyes. Basically, he rolls into Muncie, Indiana or Big Tuna, Texas and says, "Yeah. A murder..."
Rebecca was written while Daphne Du Maurier lived in Egypt, homesick for the soggy, gloomy English countryside. Manderlay was a real place, and it burned in her heart, long before she ever set pen to paper.
Charles hasn't said, but I believe Talera was a place for him before a certain earthly swordsman ever set foot on its shores...
Besides 'What if?', one of my favorite storytelling questions is 'why not?' What-if tells you what your story *is*, but why-not tells you it *isn't*.
I play with that question all the time, rolling answers around in my head to see what changes, what sounds false, what rings true. For setting, the constant question is,"Why here, and not somewhere else?"
Because I have something to say about this place is a fair answer (John D MacDonald and Carl Hiaasen come to mind). So is This place is fascinating (George Pelecanos' Washington DC or Joe Lansdale's East Texas), and this place is more real to me than reality (Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter anyone?). One favorite is I know this place like the back of my hand, and it's always telling me stories (the New Yorks of Andrew Vachss, Candice Bushnell, Edith Wharton and EdMcBain, for instance). The only unacceptable answer is a lazy one (and tomorrow I'll confess to my own lazy sins).
My favorite answer in my own fiction is because this story couldn't happen anywhere else. It's not the only answer I've ever come up with, but it is the one that makes the writing easiest. Usually by making things hardest for the hero.
For me, Poison Door was a book that grew out of its setting. I do live in Christchurch, but that was just convenient. The truth is, I'd have written about this place if I'd only spent a couple of days here. A few facts about Christchurch that toggled my imagination:
Cops don't carry guns, but crooks sometimes do.
Prostitution is legal here, as are synthetic and herbal versions of popular drugs (we call em 'party pills').
This little city (350,000) has a population of heroin addicts out of all proportion to the rest of New Zealand.
Being the biggest city on the South Island, it's a natural center of gravity for runaways.
But *most important*, Christchurch is a very, very Victorian city. It presents a squeaky-clean public face that completely denies any of these dark truths. By day, the addicts, whores and street kids are pale, unseen ghosts at a banquet of well-fed workers and tourists. By night, they serve those who shunned them by day. This is a city in constant conflict with itself.
Also, better roads and helicopter airlifts changed the face of rural medical care. The result? We have a countryside dotted with the ruins of abandoned hospitals!
For me, that setting begged for a story long before Sarah, Michelle and Tommy's lives collided.
Tomorrow (or the next day, first draft willing), I'll talk about stories where setting was a secondary consideration. At some point soon, I'll also try to talk about setting pitfalls...
Sunday, September 16, 2007
Charles has been saying a lot of interesting things about setting and world-building lately. He also has a real gift for scenic description. Then I stumbled across this discussion of the role of setting in art and fiction.
The penny finally dropped. I see what I've been missing...
Saturday, September 15, 2007
Monday, September 10, 2007
Saturday, September 1, 2007
That's right. A. Dip. Pen. Write a couple words. Dip. Write some more. Dip. Keep that pressure light, or you'll spatter all over the place. At first, it required almost as much concentration to form words as to think up what those words should be. (as much thought to write as to write, as it were)
The odd thing: My output actually *increased*. Something about the concentration in making the words frees the part of my brain that's trying to listen to the story from distraction.
There's no point using a hundred year old steel quill (I have a thousand or so lying around) to write a novel. Ballpoints are cheaper, cleaner and way more convenient. And the laptop is right here. But for me, for this novel, this works.
PS Finished the Tin Roof Blowdown last night. I need to let it settle a bit before I throw in my two cents. Or ten, as that's our smallest coin in New Zealand. Or 6.8 cents, as that's what ten of our cents are worth in America....