Friday, July 1, 2011

Take Me There

By Susan

It's the fourth of July weekend, and I worked from home today. Happy to avoid the 30 mile commute to my office in Dallas traffic, happy to be home rather than cursing my dashboard in the Texas heat, fighting frantic drivers who are fighting to get out of town. Happy to be going nowhere this weekend.

But also sad. My co-worker is leaving tomorrow for Ghana while I hold down the fort. A group from my church left for Ethiopia yesterday and just landed in Addis Ababa. In two weeks, a group of friends of mine leave for Rwanda, another friend is currently in South Africa, working the slums of Soweto, and two other teams I know left for Ghana this week, and will cross paths with my co-workers there.

I've got Africa on my mind, and Dallas is the last place on earth I want to be.

I'm taking this weekend, instead of travelling or battling the Dallas freeways, to work on my manuscript. Interestingly enough, while my mind wanders to Africa, what I am focusing on in my revisions this weekend is the setting for my novel. Place.

It's interesting how we can be defined by our location. The desire to travel, the yearning for home, or the distaste for the city on a Fourth of July weekend all are rooted in exactly where you are. The setting can either change everything or effect nothing in fiction, but either choice you make must be deliberate. I say make your setting a character.

Although my work-in-progress is primarily based in Kentucky, where I grew up, I'm also writing about places that I've never been, and instead of memory painting the picture I must allow imagination to create that landscape. In writing about India, I researched the monasteries and local customs specific to Darjeeling. I thought about all five senses in creating a believable setting, especially because of the richness of my choice. I've been to Africa, and I cannot think about it without remembering the very distinct smell, or the colors of the sunrise over the Gulf of Guinea, or the sounds of the children singing as they walk, buckets perched on their heads, to gather water. I hear the drums. How can I translate that kind of detail to a place never visited?

But when I write about Kentucky, I can taste the richness of fresh fruit from the farmer's market, and feel the rolling hills of the horse farms as they seem to move under my feet, or see the lightning bugs rise from the earth on a cool summer evening. I hear the twang of the local dialect, and I can smell the honeysuckle vines randomly wrapped around barbed wire fences.

Hopefully, with either place, I can paint those images in your mind too, whether they are places I have been or settings I have only imagined. The key is believing it, and creating a space for the reader that is realistic, whether you've been there or not.

The key to a good setting is to make it real to the reader with details and descriptions that only come with experiences, even if sometimes, they are only the experiences you've imagined. So this weekend my task is to focus on place. To make sure that as my characters walk the landscape, you are walking it with them. Whether it be a small southern state you have never visited, or a far-flung monastery in India, I want to take you there.

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