Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Set Em Up, Joe

I talk a lot about character, not nearly enough about setting.

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...


Lisa said...

Stories that are heavy on setting have become much more interesting to me over the last few years. Annie Proulx is a master at this -- I'd consider Newfoundland to be a character in The Shipping news as I think the house and town in Marlilynne Robinson's Housekeeping are and certainly Sitka, Alaska in Michael Chabon's Yiddish Policemen's Union is a major character. None of these stories could have been anywhere else. I think setting heavy stories require us to be more patient readers and to take the time to really enjoy what the authors create for us.

Charles Gramlich said...

I'm glad to see this post. Setting is often so underrated, but so important to me. I just enjoy reading stories or books with great settings and I often pay as much attention to them as to characters, at least early in a story.

I like what you say about the story that couldn't happen "anywhere else." That's a good point to keep in mind.

Talera is built up in large part from the rural landscape of our farm when I was growing up. Ponds and creeks and woods, become seas and rivers and forests. The weird ruins? Well, I'm not sure where they came from. Dreams perhaps.

cs harris said...

It does sound like a fascinating place to set a story--and to visit! I've only been to the North Island.

When I used to write historical romances, I drove my editors nuts because I set each of my books in a different time and place. The stories always came to me as characters in a conflict that could only happen in a certain environment. My second book was set in an 1870's Colorado mining town, and when the Australian setting of my first book turned out to be popular (they'd been worried), they said, "Couldn't you just move this book to Australia? They had gold mining towns in Australia, didn't they?" The heroine was raised in a Catholic orphanage in New Orleans, the hero was a Civil War vet turned gunslinger, and there was a lot of typical American violence. Where do you start explaining why this story can't be moved?

Drizel said...

My settings are mostly places I have seen or places I wanna go.....like in my novel(yay I am writing my novel...ok over that, straight face).....that my vampires and mortal fight is in a club I visited on my trip to Edinburg, the place enchanted me and I have to share its magic and mystery....so exiting....I can hardly keep still:)

Sphinx Ink said...

I like books to have a strong sense of place. I don't refuse to read those that don't give me a sense of their setting, but I tend to find those novels lacking--something's missing. Thus, writers like James Lee Burke, who do give the reader a very strong feel for their settings, resonate most with me.

Bernita said...

I find I often dislike stories that lack a strong sense of place, of individual place, and it's not just a question of appropriate street signs or mention of a landmark.

goatman said...

I can't really see how you can have fiction that is not "setting driven". Even layouts that take place only in the mind are using a thought setting.
But I guess your point was to introduce various writers' settings as intros to their work.
Ever read any Margaret Atwood (Canadian you know).
Nice to see your writings. Thanks