Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Setting as Character

By Julie

Last week, I set my NaNoWriMo novel aside. The beauty of participating in National Novel Writing Month is the short format, allowing you to experiment with a new story idea without a huge investment of time. I used November to write about half of a story that had been rolling around in my subconscious for a few years while I completed my last manuscript. The writing flowed some days and got stuck in the mud others. In January, I was pleased when I re-read what I'd written, but when I attempted a start on completing the story a few weeks ago, I had nothing to give to it.

I suppose I could have forced myself to keep writing, making it up as I went along. I'm pretty much a by-the-seat-of-my-pants writer anyway. (I call myself a plotser. I need a general idea of where I'm going and typically have a brief list of upcoming scenes that I follow, more or less, but enjoy seeing where my characters take me and try to let them lead me.)

Right there is where this post really gets started.

Seeing where my characters take me.

My NaNo characters weren't taking me anywhere unpredictable and quite honestly, I was bored. No exciting twists or unexpected actions seemed to be hiding in the woodwork, and it was really dragging me down. I figured if my characters bored me that much, I couldn't expect a reader to get excited about them. And, it seemed bigger than just the "sagging middle." I've written full manuscripts before and soldiered on through that inevitable phase.

On the other hand, a character I've been eyeing in the back of my mind wasn't leaving me alone. She's lurked there since I took a writer's voice class a few years ago and wrote a short character sketch. Her story is bigger than anything I've attempted before. In fact, I wasn't sure I was worthy of capturing her on paper just yet. But, as we writers often find, sometimes a character grabs hold of you and won't leave you alone until you tell her story. (EDIT: Hey! Barbara was my teacher and just happened to blog on voice today at Writer Unboxed!)

So, I've spent the last week or so doing historical research about a time period I don't know well. I've taken a few stabs at the story's beginning with what feels like decent results.

But one thing really stopping me from really plunging in right now is setting. I could go ahead and write the story, leaving those details out for now. But something tells me setting is going to be a character in her own right in this manuscript. And I need to nail her down and figure out who she is. She's that important.

I've read several novels lately where setting is critical to the story for various reasons.

In Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger, the location (England) is important, but the house, where nearly all the action happens, is truly the main character. The narrator's voice is simply telling the story of the house. It's even obvious from the cover.

In The Crying Tree, Naseem Rakha chose two main settings – a close-knit small town in Illinois and a desolate, isolated town in Oregon. Each represents a time in the main character's life, but also goes beyond that to represent the fertility and happiness of the family versus the lonely barrenness after their son is murdered.

Nick Hornby creates a fictional town in Juliet, Naked. Gooleness is predictable and going nowhere with no identifiable claim to fame or future goal. It mirrors Annie and Duncan, two sides of a couple whose life -- previously neatly mapped out, or so they thought -- goes awry when an outside force unexpectedly changes things.

A book on my to-be-read list, Melanie Benjamin's Alice I Have Been, tells the story of Alice Liddell, the true-life muse for Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. You can bet that setting is crucial to this story based on a real-life character. To change the setting would be to change the girl.

I struggled with setting for my last manuscript. But eventually, Waco, Texas, with its not-so-pretty history of vigilante justice and leaders gone a little crazy with power, became the perfect place for my story of a community forced to view a crime through the lenses of a paradigm shift. I'd spent little time in Waco (maybe two hours total), and it seems strangely providential that my son ended up moving there to live on a farm last year. I got to know this little town better than I ever expected.

Now, with my new story, I'm facing the same struggle.

Do I set it here in Texas, maybe down the road in Ft. Worth, a city I can visit and explore at the drop of a hat? But which is also hundreds of miles away from New Mexico, a location that would by necessity play a critical part in the plot?

Or, do I set it, as I am inclined, in Cincinnati, Ohio, a place familiar to me as a small child, but only experienced briefly as an adult when I returned for a funeral more than a decade ago?

I could tell you many details about my grandparents' house in Cincinnati. I could describe the house across the river in Southgate, Kentucky, where my dad was born, and where his father built a retaining wall of smooth river stones to keep the tiny house from falling down the hill. I could find my grandfather's grave in a cemetery flanked by a house where my great-grandfather was the town florist in the early 1900s in Blanchester, Ohio, near Cincinnati. I could even tell you about the fabulous cookies my Aunt Margie had on hand from Buskin's Bakery whenever we came to visit and the rides and hot dogs first at Coney Island, then King's Island, in the early 1970s.

Beyond that, I can't tell you much. In fact, I couldn't tell you how to get from any one of these locations to another of them.

But something about the Queen City, with her history of 1920s and 1930s speakeasies and supper clubs and her metro area's polarized laws and attitudes strongly dependent on whether you were in Cincinnati or across the river in Kentucky, speaks to me and says perhaps she's the character who will unify the others in my new story.

So, I'm busy getting to know her, presently through the marvels of the Internet, holding my breath as I open links, hoping they'll reveal a primary source (perhaps a photograph or recorded oral history from the right era). I have a feeling if Cincinnati ends up a major player in my new story, a visit will be in order sometime in the near future.

What about you? How has setting played a character in your writing? Do you think it's important to have lived or spent extensive time in that place? Or have you written a story where the setting was basically unknown to you, but called out so strongly, you had to follow your instinct and get to know that place as well as you could with the resources at hand?

Photo credits:
Ryan Thomos/Creative Commons License , Joanne Maly - Lincoln Maly Marketing


  1. Strangely enough I've written my last two and soon third book based on setting alone. The setting sets the tone and brings my characters alive. I've chosen the setting before I even name my protagonist or antagonist.

    It seems to work for me, making it easier for my characters to develop and grow. (Hugs)Indigo

  2. It's true - some places are so rich with character and history, you only need humans to do the work of telling the stories the settings know. Of course, that leads to the chicken and egg question, but I hear you.

    Thanks for stopping by, Indigo.


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