Thursday, September 20, 2007

Set Em Up Joe, part deux

Last time, I talked about stories where the setting was part of the conflict. Where any attempt made to move the story somewhere else would make the whole thing fall apart.

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.


Charles Gramlich said...

John D. MacDonald is certainly a great illustration of your points. You always feel the setting behind his stories, even if the conflict could be anywhere. It's three dimensional rather than two. James Lee Burke has the same ability.

Your comments on Minnesota brought it to life for me. It wasn't quite what I expected, never having visited the state, but I could feel it in your words.

The analogy drawn from the graphic work you were doing also makes me think. Again it makes me think that the best work is three dimensional because the setting adds that extra depth.

cs harris said...

What courage, to throw away three years! I'd have been published a lot sooner if I had realized that need to walk away from what isn't working.

Bernita said...

A beautiful post.
Pieces of the heart are subject to transplant.

Made me think of Margery Allingham's Tiger in the Smoke as another possible example.

Inside our hands, outside our hearts said...

This was a great story. I know wered talking about your life and how you changed it and threw away your work, but I am hoping that you also noticed you wrote a wonderful story that left me wanting to see more of Minnesota. There was something very pure about it.

You do not know me... but if I may say so... I would love for you to write more about this.

Thank you for sharing this.

Lisa said...

It would have been a sin to move forward with a piece that you knew was not worthy of what you were capable of. What you did showed incredible strength and integrity.

Anonymous said...

It's tough throwing out your own work. Even tougher is the moment before you decide, when you truly realize how short you've sold yourself. I did it with my novel's first ending. I was Sid to your Johnny.

Drizel said...

I actually also used one of my favorite places on earth in the story I am writing now.....I guess if you know it you can feel it:)
I tagged you.....:)
Go see on my blog...hihihi.