Monday, February 09, 2009

Place Matters

As the Pocono Mountain Retreat draws near, I thought I would spend a little time on some of the topics our fabulous workshopping editors, agent, and authors will be sharing with us.  Molly O'Neill from Bowen Press will be taking us through a character Boot Camp at the retreat, so my last post took a quick look at character.  This time around, I thought we would peek at her second topic—setting.

I write historical fiction, often infused with an element of the fantastic, so establishing a firm sense of "when" and "where" we are is critical to drawing my reader in and keeping her along for the ride.  I have often suggested to my students that they should treat setting as another character, develop it, give it a personality and a firm physical presence.  Inevitably someone asks, "Why?"  Kim Edwards, author of The Memory Keeper's Daughter, gives the perfect answer in a recent article in The Smithsonian, "Place matters, as does a sense of history and a feeling of connection to the land."  She was actually talking about why there is such an uproar about urban expansion in Lexington, KY, but she connected this notion to the draw that a place like Lexington has on writers.  And for that matter, readers.

Setting is much more than a cardboard backdrop against which a number of players perform (the song Paper Moon keeps running through my brain).  It should have as much substance as your main characters.  Afterall, they live there.  If you want to get a little more clinical about it, we are very much a product of our environment.   It stands to reason that our characters should be as well.  Certainly a well-built setting can lend depth, authenticity, and validity to your characters.  They breath in the air, whether it be thick with industrial soot or perfumed with honeysuckle and myrtle.  Their feet have been toughened by pavement or by gravel roads or even softened by the lush carpet of bluegrass that rolls on for miles.  The sense of community and culture informs their decisions and even dictates their actions or explains their reactions.  

I've talked before about the reciprocal relationship between a story and the reader.  There are really 3 stories been told:  The one the writer writes, the one the story tells, and the one the reader lives.  Think about where your readers will live.  Think about how long you want them to stay.  Kim Edwards also explains that "your understanding of a place changes the longer you stay; you discover more, and your own life gets woven into the fabric of the community."  I think it often works like that with a book as well.  Invite your readers to come stay a while, to really live in this place, to become part of it.

Now how do you do that?  I'll save that for Molly's workshop!


  1. I think setting is one of those things I will always struggle with. Thanks for this post, Mary Ann.

  2. Hi, this was very thought-provoking. I am really trying to focus on setting in my current WIP, and I agree, the setting of a story can take on a personality all its own - very important. Thanks for a great post.

    Sharon Van Zandt (svz from the blueboards)

  3. Setting is so important, especially when you're writing historical fiction or fantasy - or a comination of the two. I love researching all those little details and facts that lend a story authenticity.


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