Saturday, November 19, 2011

"Setting" as a Unique Place in an Increasingly Un-unique World

Scott D. Parker

One of the best things about being the “Saturday Guy” here at DSD is that I get a chance to wrap up the week, to look at the discussions that have gone on before me and add my commentary. The bad thing about being the Saturday Guy is when the discussions already written pretty much say everything I wanted to say. Thus, my voice becomes redundant, a trait that is too often in abundance here on the blogosphere.

Yesterday and Thursday, Jay and Russel both wrote great pieces on setting and used comic books as examples. On Tuesday, Dave stole my thunder when he talked about setting from a reader’s point of view. I was going to touch on that, specifically in how when you hear the names Lehane, Pelecanos, Connolly, chandler, King, or Burke, you instantly conjure in your mind the cities in which those novels take place. Ditto for Arthur Conan Doyle, but in a different way. Whereas the modern writers talk about particular streets and real-world restaurants and places, Doyle doesn’t always do that. Sure, he talks about traversing up the Strand to the station, but for us readers, a century removed from Holmes’ time, we are basically lost unless we have a map. Instead, Doyle—and Poe before him—creates his setting by creating a mood. We fill in the blanks when he writes “fog-shrouded streets.” For him, he didn’t necessarily feel the need to describe the area for his readership, at least at the outset, knew London.

And that gets to another point that’s often frustrating as a writer. How much is too much? How much description of the surroundings is too little? The Elmore Leonard School of Writing all but eliminates setting from many of his scenes. It’s just dudes or gals talking or doing action. I got called on that once in my writing session: “Where is this scene taking place, Scott?” Thus, on subsequent meetings, I bring chapters and stories burdened with too much setting description. Got nixed on that, too.

More to the point, those authors I’ve mentioned above speak about a specific place and a specific time. You read Lehane, and you see and feel and hear Boston. Chandler’s LA is the postcard city with the seedy underbelly. The problem with modern America is that everything is the same. Generic America, as my wife likes to call all those strip centers with the same dozen stores in every town, sucks the life out of areas that once used to be unique. True, it’s nice that a hamburger at Chili’s in Houston is the same as a hamburger at Chili’s in Chicago, but where’s the local flavor? The same is true for books. Your run-of-the-mill thriller can be thrilling, with exotic locations in Europe or the Middle East, but, after awhile, it all kinds of runs together.

That uniqueness, that sense of place,is what’s missing in many places across this country and that’s what makes books by authors with a particular home city so special. I may not want to live in Lehane’s Boston or King’s Maine, but I sure like to visit.

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