Kootenai River in NW Montana, near Canadian Border

Kootenai River in NW Montana, near Canadian Border
photo by Gene Tunick of Eureka, Montana

Monday, March 5, 2012

Tip O'Day #310 - More on Setting

Guest blogger Jonnie Comet returns with some thoughts on yesterday’s ‘setting’ post.
Hemingway once said, about writing in a given setting, ‘Don't forget the weather.’ Details about setting can be vital to a story's appeal but there are pitfalls to having too much detail as well.

I tend to write with a firm idea of the locale of the story. First, I like to choose places I would like to live in, possibly because I do not find many good works of fiction set in such places. I never write about NYC, Miami or LA, for example. There is not much fiction set on sailboats or in the lesser-visited Caribbean islands, so Deirdre, the Wanderer is focused on these settings.

In other cases I will invent geography (more recently relying on Google Earth for ideas) and otherwise using the story itself as what determines what the place has to look like. Whilst not a science-fiction writer, nor a fantasy writer like Tolkien, I nonetheless have devised whole worlds for the telling of a tale. One series (bits of which are on Kindle) takes place in a fictitious British possession in the eastern Pacific -- bearing a passing similarity to the British Virgin Islands -- for which I have composed a source book of documents, maps, history, weather patterns, cultural identity, bus routes, rosters of businesses, and so on. When writing a new chapter, I already have a known 'reality.' It works just the same as if I were writing about a real-life place.

The central-Connecticut 'River Valley' setting of my Love Me Do is another case. Ostensibly it is set in the vicinity of Middletown, but Middletown does not exist in the story's reality (though other real places do). The township of Wilshire is too big to be Middletown and I can't claim that roads and streets mentioned have any real-life corollaries. Wilshire thus stands as an alternative reality of Connecticut in the 1970s, not unlike what creative re-enactors and model-railway hobbyists concoct. I confess I borrowed this device from Fitzgerald's setting of The Eggs in The Great Gatsby. The setting is finite, must exist in a specific area and yet does not depict 'true' reality. This leads to a certain surrealism which, I believe, is part and parcel of a story's theme and of the whole reading experience.

Fanciful settings do have their limitations, especially when they must dovetail with actual ones. We have all seen Pocahontas flying over the 50-foot waterfall in a Disney film, but such a waterfall does not occur anywhere along the eastern US coast. Did Disney really believe anyone who had been to Busch Gardens and Williamsburg wouldn't know that? Such stretches of credibility can detract from the audience's experience.

Setting details should support but not overwhelm the story. Too often a writer will try to keep too close to real-life setting (or, worse, biography) and may include so many details the story itself seems secondary. Even the Gothic writers of the late 1700s were more apt to invent scenery than to write from experience. In addition there is always the possibility of misrepresenting something an astute reader will notice. Agatha Christie related an anecdote, soon after publishing a Poirot mystery in which she had a man meet someone at the corner of two streets in Paris. A reader wrote that, 'Mrs. Christie, those streets do not meet. They are parallel all through the city.' Oops.

One way to avoid error is to simply be less precise. My rule is 'If you don't know, don't say.' To represent a TV studio in Manhattan, don't give the address or the directions or even the time it takes to cross the town to get there. Anyone could case 53rd Street and discover the building you describe does not exist. Just say it's 'in the Fifties'. That's close enough. It's believable, establishes location, and moves your story on to the real action.

Whilst strong, credible and well-described setting is an asset -- perhaps even a requirement -- for any story, slavish adherence to reality can actually be detrimental to the story's purpose. Keep in mind that a story should include some action, character development and a memorable, relevant theme. Setting is only one vehicle to enable those elements.

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