Wednesday, June 8, 2011

When setting is characters

By Julie

Yes, you read that right. It doesn't say what we've talked about before--setting as character. Nope, it says what you think it says.

You guys are getting the fallout of my revisions in my posts lately. I love exploring craft issues—and enjoy it even more when a post occurs to me as a natural result of what I'm doing.

You may know I'm revising a manuscript about two unlikely friends on a road trip to a funeral.

The settings vary, all the way from Texas to Kentucky, and while I'm very familiar with the Texas settings because I live here, the Kentucky/Ohio settings are a little tougher to write.

I was born in Kentucky and lived there off and on until I was in the third grade. My grandparents lived in Cincinnati, and my dad grew up in these areas, too, so I am somewhat familiar with them—mostly from my childhood memories, one or two trips back as an adult, and family photographs and lore.

I've worried. Will my setting notes for the parts of my manuscript that take place in Kentucky and Ohio ring true? I've picked my dad's brain again and again to be sure I remember things correctly. I've used Google Earth to view terrain, neighborhoods and architectural styles. I've searched for historical images of landmarks. In other words, I've tried to ensure my setting is accurate. However, I don't doubt that when my novel is published, some local reader will be able to point out the flaws in my Kentucky/Ohio scenes.

But I came across something interesting this week. Something that told me setting isn't necessarily about the terrain. It isn't always about the landmarks.

Sometimes, it's about the characters.

I just read Laura Moriarty's The Rest of Her Life. This is the second novel I've read by Moriarty (I reviewed The Center of Everything last year here), and I find her prose and dialogue to be painfully honest. I can relate to it on many levels. Like I often do with Elizabeth Berg, I wonder if Moriarty can read my mind. How else could she describe so precisely the way I feel—the often frustrating and confusing parts of being a mother or daughter?

The Rest of Her Life is about a family dealing with the death of another family's child caused by their daughter driving while distracted. It takes place in Danby, Kansas. I don't know if this is a real town. For all I know, it could be a town like the Kentucky one I've created in my novel—loosely based on my research and memories of several towns in the general area. (And yes, I could look Danby up to see if it's real. I might do that later, but for purposes of this post, it really doesn't matter.)

Moriarty didn't spend much time on physical description of the town or the surrounding area. I don't remember many, if any, references to landmarks or cultural reference points. Yet, this town is crystal clear in my mind. The reason is because of her characters.

Her characters are representative of the place. The clothes they wear. The way they talk. The things they do in their spare time. The houses they live in. How they raise their children.

All these things combine to make a detailed picture in my brain of what Danby, Kansas, "looks" like. It might not look like another reader's picture, but it works for me. Setting became an important character in spite of the lack of concrete details.

I hope I've done this in my manuscript, too, regardless of whether the small details I slipped in—maybe 100 percent accurate, maybe not—contribute.

I hope my characters say it as well as I could have.

(And that photo at the top of the post? I took it in Leadville, Colorado, last summer. Click on it to see it larger. What says more about the character of Leadville? The buildings a century or more old? The mountains in the distance? Or the guy in the cowboy hat and leather jacket riding a longboard down the middle of Main Street? Okay, maybe the slightly unsettling gas station signs, too ...)


  1. Interesting name for a gas station, reminds me of the fictional "Stop 'n Rob" convenience stores. I get an image of Leadville as being rather slow paced, where most people know most everybody else, from that picture. Independent and interdependent, at the same time. Sounds like you'll get the feel of the Kentucky/Ohio parts down just fine.

  2. You are the secone author that I know to check Google Earth to make an accurate setting (Mallory Snow also does it). It shows a great commitment to your novel, but I wonder if readers who enjoy reading the story line care much about the small details. Maybe they do, but most probably don't.

  3. I check Google Earth as well because my settings are all actual places. Once I even took a virtual "walk" from the house where my (also real) protagonists had lived in West Toronto to the old mill ruins. No, I didn't have to include the details of every twist and turn in the road, but I did need to know that a man with a cane could realistically make that walk. I was able to see details of the Humber River that I included in the text so it would feel familiar to the many potential readers who live in that area. I prefer to know a lot and show a little.

  4. I understand Kim. I read that you write about your great grandpa, a Canadian painter. I live in Yorkville, the center or art galleries in Toronto, where there are many art galleries that I visit regularly. Never heard about him, but his "Indian Settlements" paintings might be a great addition to Native centres in North America. I see that some paintings are for sale, so you might wish to contact these people
    to sell them via an online auction.

  5. Giora,

    That is too funny! I have a good friend who lives in an apartment building on Prince Arthur Ave, and went to many of those galleries with her. I'm not surprised that you haven't heard of Carl - he worked on commission mainly and made enemies of many of the politically advantaged artists of the time (Group of Seven). His divorce and remarriage to my great-grandmother had him all but blacklisted in Toronto the Good. I'm trying to salvage his legacy. Thankfully, he led one hell of a life, and so I can tell a great story!

    The collectors who are selling their work on my website all want private sales. I've bought one myself from Heffels, though!


  6. Beverly, that's exactly how I'd describe Leadville! I visited there as a kid for a penpal exchange (I lived in Colorado then), and it was such a foreign environment compared to the hustle and bustle of Denver. It's neat and interesting that you got that from the photo.

    Giora, I know I don't really notice too much if the details aren't there, but I do notice them with pleasure when they are--as long as it's not overkill, which can also happen. I just don't want to have a story that feels like it takes place in a vacuum. :)

    Thanks for stopping by the blog!

  7. Well, Kim, I used to live On Prince Arthur. A really lovely street. Now, I'm 2 minutes walking to the east on Bloor Street. But I read that your great grandpa got some recognition. Canada's prime misniter Mackenzie King bought his painting and praised his paintings. He's also recognized to paint the Canadian landscape before the Group of Seven and to inspire at least one of them.
    Now, here is a task for you if you want to promote his legacy. Many people, including me, search on Wikipedia. You can go to this link and insert some info about your great granpa. in the early 20th Century section
    Good luck!

  8. Giora,

    If you lived in 95 Prince Arthur I will laugh. Sometimes this world is very small! I agree - lovely street! I bet I've walked right by your building, and Carl's last residence was on St. Mary, which, if you are on the south side of Bloor, would be practically in your backyard!

    Yes, Carl did have some recognition from Mackenzie King. They were friends and I have all the original letters and telegrams. In 1911, Carl had a solo exhibit that led to an invitation by the Belgian government to exhibit there. WWI happened before it could be arranged, but he was, according to the newspaper articles I have, the first Canadian to receive such an offer.

    I have read he inspired Johnston. Macdonald and Harris despised him and he had no great love for them either.

    I have thought of adding a Wikipedia entry, but am rather frightened by all the technical stuff I may need to know to do so. Wouldn't I have to know HTML?


  9. Well, Kim, you can laugh. I lived there. It's a nice 8 floors red-green building with a garden on the roof and a Jacuzzi on the roof. There are two other apartment buildings in that street at 55 and at 50. I live on the south east corner of Bllor and Bay which is less than 1 minute walking to 25 St. Mary Street, a tall and big white apartment building that maybe Carl lived there. It's an old building but maybe not 80 years old. There are small building, part of the University of Toronto, that maybe he lived there.
    Anyway, as you can see you don't need Google Earth if you write something in my area .. I can just go there and tell you ..:)
    Mackenzie King is well know in Canada, so refering to him will help you to sell your book. If they were friends and you put some of the letters and telegrams from Macknzie King in the book, than your book might be an important addition to the history of Canada. You can even put Mackenzie King's comment about Carl Ahren at the start of your book. He said that Ahren's paintings are a "burst of sunshine coming through the window"
    I read that the great depression (29-39) hurt Ahrens and King who was worried about his plight helped him financially. When Ahrens died in 1936, King mourned his loss.
    I think that the connection to King will help you to find a Canadian Book Publisher.
    And yes, your great grandpa inspired Frank Johnson.
    It should be easy to add into to Wikipedia. You just check their instructions. They welcome additions as long as they are real.

  10. Giora,

    Send me an e-mail at singha(at)sbcglobal(dot)net so I can easily reach you. It will be great to chat! I may indeed pick you brain on a couple of things. I'm sure I walked right by your building a few years ago.


  11. This is a well-written and informative post. I agree, it's not always the landmarks that make the setting. Sometimes, indeed, it is the characters. Thank you for mentioning Google Earth - I need to use that!


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