We’re continuing a discussion of “Writing 300 Pages in 30 Days” with novelist Susan Meissner. Yesterday, Susan talked about setting, and that prompted me to ask more about how setting is like a character, something I’ve touched on in my e-zine this past year.
Susan writes today:
ML Eqatin (from yesterday’s post) makes a good point when she says that for her, setting is plot, not character. Plots are ideas in flux; they move, they change, they nearly breathe. I can get behind that. The important thing to keep in mind, and what these two concepts have in common, is that setting is more than simple geography. It should matter to your story. A rich setting is what makes a story memorable. Remember, too, that there is one over-arching setting but dozens of secondary settings within a book
I am including a few excerpts from a couple favorite reads and one from one of my own books to show you what I mean by making your setting a character; a driver of your plot. “How is it done?” was a popular response to yesterday’s post (and I appreciate your comments, by the way). So here we go.
Allowing your setting to speak or influence your characters’ actions is accomplished best when no one can tell that’s what you’re doing. It’s all about being subtle. Done right, it shouts its meaning, but so beautifully no one thinks to cover their ears. Here’s an example from “Ahab’s Wife,” a terrific book by Sena Jeter Naslund. In this scene, a number of people are in a lifeboat after their whaling ship has sunk. They are quickly running out of water and food and there is no land in sight and no other ships. The outlook is dire. And the sparkling sea on which they will soon perish is completely disinterested, not a care in the world:
“Our days were spent in glitter, dazzle. Sometime the cups of light were small as thimbles, sometimes big as bowls. They rocked, they danced, they could not stand still. Not when I thought so loudly as I could Be still! did they cease their clapping of hands, their kicking up of heels. Ceaselessly moving, endlessly spreading water. Colors: green, blue, slate, gold. Pink at sunset. Us: groaning. Feeble. Angry with a smoldering more malignant than try-pots.”
The sea is mocking this hopeless predicament, but Naslund never says that. She lets the descriptive words communicate the truth that the sea doesn’t care one iota what happens to these unlucky travelers
In Leif Enger’s “Peace Like a River,” Reuben’s gifted father, who is mourning the loss of innocence at home, arrives to his menial janitorial job to a sewer system that has gone on strike. Brace yourself. Reuben narrates:
“How much detail do you need? How much can you stand? I’ll spare you beyond saying that when Dad got to school Monday morning he encountered a basement shin deep in evil, a swamp of soft terrors afloat and submerged: a furnace choked and dead, a smell to poise your wits to fight.”
The setting here is as bad as it gets. This horrible little interlude has nothing to do with the obvious plot, but it subtly suggests things are about to get really bad for this family. Really bad.
This next one is from “A Map of the World” by Jane Hamilton. In this scene, Alice the protagonist is at the hospital waiting to hear if the neighbor girl, who was in her care and who fell into her pond while Alice was inside pondering lost dreams, is dead or alive.
“The morning Lizzy fell into the pond stretched through three calendar days. In the hospital, in the lounge that had no windows, there was no signal to distinguish day from night except the sound of the meal carts coming and going, the smell of eggs or broth or breaded veal cutlets. . . Time and seasons were for others, for bankers and bus drivers, teachers and storekeepers. We would wait. We would wait, hour after hour, in the subzero maroon-and-blue enclosure with a rubber plant for oxygen.”
Can you already tell that the setting, this hospital waiting room, is telling us Lizzy is gone?
The last one is from my fall 2008 release, “The Shape of Mercy.” Lauren, my protagonist, is a sophomore literature major who has been hired to transcribe a 400-year-old diary (Mercy Hayworth’s if you’ve been reading these posts the last few days) for a reclusive octogenarian named Abigail.
“Abigail’s library was overly-furnished, exploding with paintings, tiered candles, vases of flowers, pillows and cushions, and bursting, bursting, bursting with books. While the sitting room appeared as if no one had sat there in years, the library looked as though Abigail spent every waking moment in it, surrounded on all sides by piles and stacks and cases of books. It was the first time in my life I was surrounded by books and felt uneasy. Only half of them were housed on shelves. The rest were loose, unfettered, poised as if to attack. Abigail pointed to an armchair that sat among towers of pages stacked around the chair like scaffolding. I walked to the chair, sat down, and minded my ankles as if the books closest to me might nip at my feet. Abigail sat across from me in a chair like mine, surrounded by Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer and Socrates.”
I wanted the library to convey what Abigail is like. I wanted her piles of books to appear like yapping dogs that are suspicious of everyone, fiercely loyal to their owner, and are not to be trusted blindly. I wanted the library to be the narrator, to illustrate with words what we can expect from Abigail.
To write these scenes you would need to know how the ocean undulates in the summer months, how a backed-up sewer smells, what a hospital waiting room without windows is like and how an over-furnished room with too many books in it will make you feel. Knowing these fine details upfront and then using them to your advantage lets you create unforgettable scenes but without losing your writing momentum
Better stop for now. But to quickly answer Cathy’s question: “Can my places have fictional names? Can I make up a small town set in a specific part of a state?” Yes, if you must. I did with my first book, “Why the Sky is Blue.” I made up a rural Minnesota town called Blue Prairie so that I could control everything about the setting, but I made it like all the other towns in southwest Minnesota, right down to the corn and soybean fields that lined the horizon.
Randy sez: Yes, I agree. You can make up fictional names for places, if you don’t feel like using real ones. I know lots of authors who do that, and it’s perfectly OK.
Tune in again tomorrow when Susan will move on to discuss Plot . . .