Sunday, July 14, 2013

Setting the Stage

We all learned it in school:

SETTING IS ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT ELEMENTS OF A SHORT STORY OR NOVEL

What is setting exactly? It's the place(s), time(s) and circumstances in which the story takes place. Setting includes

  • the year(s) during which the action takes place.
  • The country, city, province where the characters live.
  • The rural, urban or suburban setting.
  • The rooms they inhabit.
  • The fields, pastures, mountains, deserts, seashores where they travel.
  • The circumstances in which they exist 
    • Is it wartime or  or peacetime?
    • Is it a time of  famine or prosperity?
    • Do they experience personal wealth or poverty?
Setting is just about the last thing I think about when I'm writing.

I don't mean I don't place my stories carefully: Catch the Sun couldn't take place anywhere but Los Angeles. Bear Medicine had to unfold on the Pine Ridge Reservation where the Lakota tribe lives. And my latest book, Down on Ten Toes needed the big bad city vibe of New York in the seventies.

What I mean is, my settings are driven by the story I want to tell, not the other way around.

You could do it the other way. You could be inspired by a place and/or a time, and create characters and a story tailored to that setting. In that case, the setting becomes a character in the drama, maybe the main character.

I wonder if Thomas Hardy wrote that way. So much of his work begins with pages of detailed descriptions of a place, and, almost as if by accident, a character wanders into the scene, a small dot on the landscape, a mere feature of the setting.

Of course, modern readers find Hardy unbearably tedious--for good reason. But if you want to show how a place, an atmosphere can create character and action, you can still do it. Woody Allen did it recently in the movies with Midnight in Paris which is nothing if not a love letter to the City of Lights.

Here's how I do it, I think. (The process happens organically and almost all at once so it's hard to separate the elements).
  • First I'm inspired by a character or characters who intrigue me, who work on my imagination and don't let go.
  • Next I imagine how these characters will behave given a certain set of circumstances. Sometimes even dull people can become interesting due to the effect of circumstances on their psyches.
    • Will they grow and learn? 
    • Will they give in to their most selfish impulses?
    • Will they be destroyed by the circumstances?
  • After that, I create their actions--what they  think, say, and do to affect their world and the other characters This becomes the plot.
  • Finally, I place them in the setting or settings that seem most appropriate for the development of their story.
You can do this any way you want. Like I said, the setting can inspire you first and everything else can come out of it.

Or you can have a plot you want to explore first and let the characters and setting evolve out of that.

What  doesn't work is to shortchange one of  these three elements. And the element that is the easiest to shortchange is the setting.

And here's the important thing: you must attend to the setting in every scene. It isn't enough just to establish the overall setting, for example London, 1943 during the blitzkrieg

Every time your characters appear on the page, we need to know where they are, what they're doing, where they're going, if they're coming back from somewhere. Are they smoking a cigarette? Reading a book? Staring out the window? Walking?

Have you ever read a story in which two characters are having a conversation and you have no idea where they are, what time of day it is, whether they're sitting, standing or walking? A conversation which seems to exist nowhere at all? It's a strange sensation. It creates frustration in the reader. It makes the story dull and lifeless.

I don't mean we need to know about every item in the room or exactly what the characters are wearing--unless it's important. I'm certainly not advocating long. tedious descriptive passages. A word or two will do.

BUT YOU MUST ATTACH YOUR CHARACTERS TO THEIR WORLD OR THEY WILL NOT COME TO LIFE.

What do you think? How do you work with setting in your work?


Monday, July 8, 2013

Am I Foolish to Worry?

I have a new novel in mind. Actually, it's a story that's been nagging me for years.

It's the story about the relationship between my parents.

It's not a pretty story. It's not inspirational, uplifting or full of tenderness.

It is a love story, though, for my parents loved each other passionately. They also did their utmost to destroy one another.

It's an interesting story because my father was an extreme example of the domineering male while my mother was so passive as to be almost immobilized.

Except that she was beautiful so people wanted to look at her. And she was brilliant so people wanted to converse with her.

My father, too, was brilliant, making a name for himself as a talented trial lawyer. He appeared in newspaper columns as a rising young star, the criminal lawyer who never lost a case.

He believed he could get what he wanted, and he controlled everything in his world  right down to the furniture and draperies in the Gatsby-esque house he bought with his newly acquired wealth.

He thought he could control his wife too, improve her, help her overcome her shyness, bring her out of her shell. She tried to be what he wanted--she loved him with every fiber of her being-- and he must have believed that she would become the perfect wife in time. His perfect partner.

But he couldn't control her drinking. And there came a time when she lost everything except this one, powerful, devastating weapon. She could not give up her drinking and my father couldn't make her.

I have letters--achingly sad, longing letters my father wrote my mother begging her to "take care of her health"for the sake of the family he wanted them to raise together--a family of strong, vibrant children able to take on the world because their parents were wise, smart, loving and stable.

My father's career nosedived--carelessness or arrogance played a part, I suspect--but he never wavered in his belief that he could make it all work again. Never stopped pressing my mother to be what he wanted her to be.

In the end, they divorced and my mother died of alcoholism when she was only thirty-eight years old. My father moved, remarried and rebuilt his career. He also became increasingly angry, embittered and cynical. In the end he withdrew from the world he had tried to conquer. He spent the last fifteen years of his life in bed, glued to an endless series of sports shows, unwilling to speak about much of anything at all, least of all, the past.

Here's the thing: for years people have encouraged me to write their story. For years I have felt a deep reluctance. 

For a long time I held back because the people involved were still around--notably my father, but also aunts, uncles, family friends. But they are virtually all gone now, so I no longer have that excuse. No one can be hurt by telling their story.

So now I worry that maybe I don't have all the facts.

Of course I don't, I was a child during most of the drama.

Furthermore, I  don't even want to write a biography. I'm not motivated to write factually. I don't want to dig out dates, times and events from old newspaper files or the memories of old acquaintances. I'm pretty sure that mode of inquiry will not get me to my parents' motives, thoughts and emotions.
But will making the story a novel serve my parents in the end? Will distorting the facts of the narrative allow access to their emotions? Can turning my parents into characters help me tell the truth about them?

I don't know. I do know their story exerts a powerful pull on me--after all, who they were has a lot to do with who I am.

But there is still the reluctance, the sense that I might be invading holy ground where I have no right to tread.

What do you think? How do you handle stories of people close to you? Or your own, for that matter?