Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Alchemy of Setting


When choosing a book, setting is something that can definitely draw me in. We all have personal favorites but I love gorgeous natural locations, old buildings, rich cultural activity, interesting businesses or hobbies, and atmosphere. One of the pleasures of reading is entering into a fully realized world that you can see, smell, taste, and hear. Feel.

I lived in New England most of my life, in Maine and New Hampshire with frequent visits to Vermont. Now that I live in Georgia, I enjoy excursions to New England through both reading and writing. I have to say I like reading about snow much more than I did living it! New England is a setting rich in history, weather, beauty, and architecture. The resort history of the White Mountains inspired two of my historical works. Other settings are just as fascinating, though. I have a YA set in Hollywood and adult books set in Oregon and Arizona. I also plan to set something in Italy, where my ancestors came from.

Setting influences character and plot, of course, as I like to work within the constraints of the possible. I spend almost as much time researching as writing, finding that I need to be fully grounded in my location before I can write about it. Yet creating effective setting doesn't mean pages of description. Rather, choose details that best evoke your setting, then use them to flavor action and narrative and dialogue.

Here is an excerpt from Blame It on the Aliens, published in the Live Free or Sci Fi anthology.  The characters drive through a depressed mill town to go fishing.


         “Man, this place is depressing,” Matt muttered as we cruised past decaying apartment houses and boarded-up storefronts.  Here and there, yellow tape guarded the charred, collapsed carcasses of those that had burned.
            But I was almost more unsettled by what was missing: the behemoth bulk of the pulp mill with its 300-foot stacks and multi-acre sprawl. All demolished and trucked away. A lone chimney standing in a tidy patch of grass the only testament to more than one hundred years of transforming logs to pulp to paper to prosperity.
            I stepped on the gas. Hopefully the fish hadn’t left as well.
            A couple of hours of drifting on the smooth mercury surface of Success Pond had the tranquilizing effect I’d hoped for. It was dead quiet, the only sounds occasional birdsong or a duck quacking as it flew over. So late in the season, no one else was on the water. The camps lining the shore were already shuttered and tucked in for the winter.
            I cast my line into the water, watching the gold spinner spiral down into the clear shallows of the cove. We’d only caught a couple of smallmouth bass so far, all under the limit, so we tossed them back.


Which settings do you find most compelling--as reader and writer?

Note: The photograph was taken outside the mill town in the story. Those tiny islands are all that remains of boom piers - guides for logs sent down the Androscoggin River.

1 comment:

Qing Cai said...
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