Friday, October 24, 2014

Setting is a Ghost

So I've been trying to think up things that fall under the categories of "secrets," "Halloween-y," and "cool, hopefully useful writing knowledge" but most of what I've got is: well, I traveled a bit this summer. 

You got me-- it's not really a secret and not useful writing advice. It's not even Halloween-themed.

But I can talk about setting. 

BALCONIES maaaan I love balconies
Over the summer, I went to New Orleans and it was kickass. I had a scene in my last manuscript set there, and I really wanted to capture as many details of the city as I could. I'd never been that far south before, and while I'd done a ridiculous amount of research on the city and the culture before visiting, it was still really interesting seeing what stood out about a place versus what I was writing about it. 

Setting, in many ways, is like a ghost. It follows you through the pages of a book. It never contacts you explicitly or anything, but you see traces of its presence as the characters go about their business-- balconies housing dangling plants, strings of lights, and deck chairs, and the rank oyster smell loitering outside some of the bars and restaurants. 

As a reader, I love seeing the ways that a book's setting influences the plot. As a writer, I subscribe to the idea that the setting has to be integral enough to the book that the story can't be set any other place and still be the same thing

I visited the French Quarter during nights when it wasn't even Mardi Gras (aka the middle of May) and the streets still get closed to through traffic during the late evenings because the foot traffic is just that intense. It's crazy! And it's those weirdo, super-specific details that draw people in and make your setting a compelling one. 

Characters that are from certain regions of the country (or from different countries!) may also behave differently, or even if they don't adhere to their native region/homeland's mores, they'll still see a certain set of behaviors as normal/acceptable and others as rude. 

And it all comes from setting. 

fun fact: tiny birds will perch on your table here and try to eat your grits (not cool, bro)
The setting can also collude with you in making characters' lives harder. Protag need to go somewhere immediately? Have the cab get snarled up in traffic around a tourist trap or monument. Two characters gearing up for a fight? Find either the worst or most interesting place for them to do it-- what cool environment can they use in battle? 

In last ms, I had one character chase after another. Simple enough, yeah? Then I set that scene on Bourbon Street at night, and suddenly, tons of conflict: one character is breaking curfew, he can't see where he's going because there's too many people, his own personal phobias start kicking in, he gets cheap drinks spilled on him-- it kickstarts a whole mess of details and tensions. 

And you don't have to campy with it-- while I believe that details do help ground us in a setting, most of what a setting is is the feeling it invokes in us. A ghost's goal is to make you feel something. 

another fun fact: over half the pictures I took are balconies 
The specifics matter less. It's less important that there are foreboding knocks on the bedroom wall and more that the person sleeping there feels threatened (though obvs to do this, you'll want to include some specifics to show it). Ultimately, it's up to you to choose the details that stand out to you as touchstones of a location-- short, sweet punches that capture the essence of wherever your story is set. 

Especially in contemp, I think it's important to let the setting shine. Places, like ghosts, have their own histories. Nowhere stays the same forever.  

Same deal for fantasy--setting can add a unique spin and flavor to old tropes. What about your particular fishing village makes it an interesting/terrible place for the protag to grow up in? I adore Jodi Meadows' INCARNATE books for a ton of reasons, but one is that her world and setting are so interesting and constantly affect the characters. 

My current WIP is an urban fantasy and I'm researching geology, mine disasters, and all sorts of esoteric facts and beliefs about rocks for its monsters and magic system. I want the history of coal mining and those specific details associated with it to haunt my readers-- not beat them over the head with HEY COAL HELLO but to give that story a specific flavor.

And yeah, I had an awesome time in New Orleans and I promise I was not thinking about setting 100% of the time, though I did occasionally split off to wander Bourbon Street or prowl the WWII Museum. Moment of drooling for the memory of the beignets we consumed.

~*they were so good*~

And I got to meet Leah!! (You guys, she is every bit as amaze in real life as she is online.)

Leah's phone is also nine zillion times cooler than mine
So what do you guys think? What are some of the best examples of setting that you've come across in books? I also really adore ANNA DRESSED IN BLOOD and (duh of course) THE SCORPIO RACES and THE RAVEN BOYS for this as well. Share your favorites and we'll tweet recs through the day! :)

Alex Yuschik writes about lock picks, ghosts, the abandoned places in cities, and how not to strike bargains with stars. Between sneaking in time to game and rocking out to indie music, Alex spends the rest of her free time working towards her PhD in mathematics. You know, as one does.

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1 secret replies:

  1. I love this! You're so right about it being like a ghost, present but not obvious. Now I'm going to start thinking about if any of my scenes/books could be set in other places, and see if the setting therefore needs to be stronger.