Tuesday, May 2, 2017

space and place

What role does setting play in the books you read or write?

It's a bit like talking about air. Setting is vital, but just kind of there. Like air, it's got to be life-sustaining, but not too noticeable, I think, at least in crime fiction.

Setting in a book remains relatively slow-moving against the dynamics of whatever the characters are up to. It ties things together. In some books setting is more a character than others, such as heavy rains and a fast-rising river figuring large in The Babes in the Wood by Ruth Rendell. There, I found myself hoping setting would evolve, maybe play a part in the denouement. If I remember right, the rising waters from the opening had dried up and were irrelevant toward the end. I love Ruth Rendell, and I only put that forward as an example of where setting stood out to me with more than the usual subliminal appreciation, and the first time I actually thought about it, as now and again I think about the importance of air.

In reading, I like the adventure of extreme settings -- the far north, cities from around the world I'll never get to -- or regions, like Burgundy! I like to retreat to calmer places too, like the Gulf Islands, as in my current read, Sing a Worried Song by William Deverell. I also enjoy a setting I recognize, like Vancouver, or in a more nostalgic way, that other Vancouver from my past.

It's great to time-travel through the eyes of writers from bygone days - to hear the clop of horse hooves when I read Conan Doyle. It's been done in the movies, of course, and historical novels must be rife with clopping hooves, but the fact that this was his reality makes it just plain thrilling. Did he write with that in mind, me, a century later, awed by space and time? Or did he just want to write a good story, and setting just happened to be there?

At the opera, the backdrop may switch between acts (I don't know, actually, I've never been to the opera, but I imagine so), yet even if the actors move from dining room to hilltop there must be some kind of continuity to the stage design, linking the acts into a satisfying whole.

We may not recognize our own settings. I think it's important to know and respect that. I lived up north for some years, went there straight from college, with husband and three-year-old son, and the north became the backdrop to my life. Unfamiliar territory, first real job and first real house, new at being married, new at being a parent. Didn't feel particularly dramatic at the time, but it was! From here, looking back, I see a distinct happy-sad wash over those years, provided by the northern woods and highways and the main drag and the bars and churches and people.

When I'm in my novel I find it best to only write about setting with eyes out of focus (aside from Google time trying to get street names etc correct). Crank it up or turn it down, but let place crystallize on its own. So long as it's planted in my mind with every line, it will emerge through the characters' eyes, what they do and say and think. Unforced, setting interplays with character and makes the story real.

I say that from this experience: After publication of Cold Girl, in that gut-wrenching stage called writer's regret, I felt I did a bad job of setting. I thought I blew it, didn't give my readers their money's worth by not adding more description, more milieu, and that a big criticism would come down on me, amidst many others, that my book doesn't evoke the Hazeltons. I dreaded meeting readers who had lived there, who would call me out as an imposter. Instead, so many people—even northerners—tell me they love the setting, and it feels real. With time, I've come to believe I did a decent job of it. Maybe if I had pushed setting in a more conscious way, it would have smacked of travelogue.

My publisher and agent liked the setting of Cold Girl too. They wanted to know why I moved my two protagonists down to the big city. I explained that I had lived in the north for a while, and that's where I started to write book one. But I'm from the city, and now I'm back down south, and my protagonist Cal is an urbanite, and he just has to come home. So they've let me have my way. I'm not worried about the transition between Cold Girl and Undertow. The Lower Mainland is just a different kind of wilderness.

So setting is easy, I think. Decide where the action happens, choose a time span, paint it all a certain hue, and let it happen, as lovely as air.



Art Taylor said...

Fun post, Rae—and you've got some great pictures here!

RJ Harlick said...

I agree with you, RM, that the setting has to come through the eyes, actions, thoughts of your characters, otherwise it comes across as a travelogue and will doubtless put your readers to sleep. Great post.

Paul D. Marks said...

Fun piece, RM. And I love the closing: "So setting is easy, I think. Decide where the action happens, choose a time span, paint it all a certain hue, and let it happen, as lovely as air." That sort of says it all and sums it up perfectly.

Unknown said...

Thank you all for dropping by :)