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.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Set Me Up

By Russel D McLean

And yes, that goshdarned whippersnapper Jay Stringer beat me to the punch yesterday with his Batman/Superman bit, but I’m not rewriting this week’s entry…

Setting and place are often overlooked by writers. A presiding sense of “well, its just a backdrop, innit,” crowds too many stories. But here’s the facts, Jack: Place is pivotal. Your story can’t just happen in a vacuum. And despite what you think, your choice of setting informs everything about your work.

Long time (and short time) readers of this blog will know that – along with a few of my fellow DSDers – I’m a big comic book geek, and when it comes to setting and importance, I can think of no finer examples than Batman and Superman.
Batman stories tend to take place primarily in Gotham City; a place that feels like hell has literally sprouted roots from the earth. It is dirty, urban sprawl at its worst and most rotten. It is the kind of place where not even money can buy you safety, as millionaire Bruce Wayne’s parents found to their cost.

On the flip side, Superman tends to hang out in the city of Metropolis. It’s a vibrant and dynamic city. We usually see it in the daytime, with the Daily Planet building – standing as it does for good, honest journalism – standing erect as a monument to truth and honesty. It’s the kind of place where a man like Superman can help to bring out the best in its citizens. Okay, it has its problems – as does any city – but unlike Gotham, those problems are rarely overwhelming. Metropolis is – relatively speaking – a city of hope.

Both cities reflect not only the characters who inhabit them but also the very feel of a story. The choice of location allows you to set mood and to play themes and ideas in unexpected ways.

Let’s take an example from my own writing life. The decision to set my crime novels (at least, those featuring J McNee) in Dundee was no accident. It was partly a case of wanting to write about somewhere different, but also because I could use the setting – an industrial town that had been through poverty and was seeing money come back through new industries – as the perfect setting for a crime novel. There was a natural tension to the setting that perfectly matched what I wanted to write about. It was more than just a place I could give street names to.

Which, of course, is a mistake many people make. One novel I read years ago tried so hard to make itself “local” that it lost all colour and atmosphere. Dropping in street names and referencing local publicans is not enough to create a strong and vibrant setting. No, I’d rather read about the feel of a place, how it affects the characters and the action of a novel.

But before you go thinking that I’m limiting a setting to one description, one aspect of itself, let’s think about it a while: a setting can be one thing to one person and something entirely different to a novel. After all, the Edinburgh of Tony Black, Ian Rankin and Allan Guthrie may be a horrible, terrible, dangerous place where it always bloody well rains, but through the eyes of someone like Alexander McCall Smith it becomes far more genteel, a place of a sunnier disposition where things tend to work out for the best.

And yes, all of those writers are using the same “setting”, the same city.

But they’re using it in very different ways.

Which makes you wonder if one could write a happy go lucky comedy of errors set in Gotham City and a dark, twister tale of broken bones in Metropolis. Maybe you could, if you used the settings correctly.

Setting is a matter of perspective. Same way as a character can be a hero from one point of view and a villain from another, a setting can achieve a certain mood from one perspective and quite another if you view it from a different angle.

So use your setting. Tie it in to your characters, your story, your mood. But remember that you have to consider how you’re using your setting, what kind of eyes you’re seeing it through. And that you are never, ever, ever writing characters in a vacuum.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Setting Things Straight

By Jay Stringer

Setting is a loaded concept. Setting can be a place, it can be a time, it can be the thing that cement does after you've poured it over a dead body. It can be a character. We hear that one a lot, right? What I love about this novel is that the city becomes a character. Yet a place doesn't do things. A place doesn't drive the plot. It's the people in it that do that.

I usually flip things around when it comes to writing advice. I don't talk about setting all that much. I talk about context. An argument needs context, so does a joke, or a conversation. Context helps to define place,class, identity, ideology and actions. It defines whether our scared protagonist is pointing that gun in self defence or attack.

It's not just about where the story is set, but when, why and how. It's also one of the most important factors in reaching clarity, the real juice of story-telling. Where are we in the story, and where are we in the scene. That applies both physically and mentally. Think of it all as one and the same. Start to connect the two as you write.

In previous weeks we've talked about plot and character. We've discussed how to set up who your guy is, and what he wants. The final ingredient that turns those two things into a story is context. Out of this we get the obstacles, the difficulties, the motivations and the limitations.

A story set in Glasgow city centre at 2pm is going to be different to a story set in Glasgow city centre at 2am. The location is the same, but the setting is different. The context is different. At the risk of generalising, the internal monologue of a male character walking down that street might well be different to the internal monologue of a woman walking down that street. Both scared, but both having different fears. Again, the location is the same, and now the time is the same, but the context is still different.

People often say that Gotham is a distinctive character in Batman stories. But what the fictional city actually does is reveal character. Gotham is a reflection of the hero; it's providing a context to his story and obstacles for him to overcome.

Stories need tension to be interesting, and that can be either internal or external. But if you use your setting well, you can bridge the gap between the two. Gotham took away Batman's parents. Bruce Wayne is both Gotham's' most celebrated son, and most famous victim. All you do then is fill in the blanks to play to those two angles, so that the setting reveals the character.

Gotham may be fictional, but New York isn't. Matt Scudder walks the streets of Hells Kitchen in over fifteen mystery novels. Lawrence Block used a mixture of fictional and real locations; the bars and coffee shops were real, the murder locations tended to be fictional. But these stories were not documentaries, they were not journalism. The locations worked in relation to Scudder. They formed his world, they told us things about him. His sparse hotel room told us where he was both emotionally and physically. When he moved into a nicer apartment later on, that told us how he was changing, but the fact that he still kept the old hotel room as well told us something important. The passing of time in the city saw gentrification of his old stomping ground, but really that was telling us about Scudder, not the city.

"Realism," is a phrase that gets used often when describing crime genre, and again is often used to describe setting. But there is no such thing. Realism in fiction is an elaborate con job. We just give small details to trick the reader into a feeling of realism. (Pffft, if only there was a fancy French word for that.) And it's an easy con job, because the readers want us to pull it off, and their brains are programmed to help us, they will fill in the blanks if we give the right cues.

Okay, okay. You came here for tips and you got a lecture on context and some waffle about a comic book city. But where's the practical help, huh?

Okay, okay. Delegation, that is the key. Don't be afraid to delegate work to your reader.

Part of the trick to setting -to all writing- is leaving things out. It goes back to that con job, that trick. If you want a setting to really resonate with a reader and come to life in their heads, you need them to be doing a lot of the work, you need them to be making it into something that will stick. Don't over do the descriptions. Give the reader a few small details to latch onto. Something that's on the wall, or a smell, or a temperature. Give one or two small details that are specific to that location, something that will be unique about the setting just as if you're describing a facial feature of a character.

Then forget describing the patterns on the carpet or the colour of the curtains and get into your characters' head. How does that setting affect the character? What unique obstacles does it present? What are your characters emotions in this setting? From there -with one telling physical detail and then some character specific information- your readers can go about the hard work of actually constructing the location in their heads.

But always be mindful, what does this location reveal about my characters? If the answer is nothing then consider changing the location, or cutting the scene.

And, as with last week, don't sweat the big things. Build this story one scene at a time. One location at a time. You don't need to build Gotham, you just need to describe some of it's rooms and streets, and how they affect your characters. The reader will do the rest.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Setting: The World Within

By Steve Weddle

When I think of setting, I think about the little stuff. Sure you have the region and the town where the story takes place. But I want the setting to be more than simple scenery -- the space around the characters. I need the setting to be the details that infect them.

To me, it's where you're setting your characters as much as where the story is set. You're going to set them down in this type of world. I don't care whether you call it Boston or New Boston, I want to know what's immediately around them more than I want you to name the restaurant near their home.
Charlie stayed on the top step, making his father stare up at him, at his scraped chin, little pieces of gravel wedged like flecks of house paint into the skin.
That's a line from my Country Hardball collection. The boy is part of the scenery as much as the setting is part of him. He has gravel pressed into his chin, little bits of earth. And using that simile -- like flecks of house paint -- tells you about their home. You know those beat-up houses in the country that you see (or live in) where the faint is just flaking off? Well, to me, that says so much. A little detail like that, worked into the narrative detail, tells you so much about the setting.

Let me pull another example, something small that I hope shows what I'm talking about.
They looked out across the dirt path curling behind the store, the weedy field, the train tracks that led somewhere else.
Dirt and weeds behind a store. This store, I don't mind telling you, would probably be the gas station I worked at as a kid. Every so often I'd have to go back there with a scythe and cut down the weeds. Yeah, a scythe. Don't know why the boss didn't have a weed-whacker. Guess I was it. So I'd cut down the weeds and look up at the train tracks running by carrying my hobo thoughts of harmonicas and camp fires miles away to some movie I'd seen that weekend.

I'm not interested in the train tracks. I'm not interested the setting around the characters. I'm interested in the setting within the characters.
We’d walked across the fields back to her house, climbed up the cement steps and used our elbows and chins to open the thin-metal screen door. A sprig from a dying nandina bush got caught in the door. I reached back, snapped the branch like a finger, then closed the door behind me.
See, I don't want someone to read that and say "Ah, a nandina bush. They must be in Zone 7." For what I'm writing, the part of the setting that's important is the bush -- but I don't care about the bush. I care that the bush gets in the way and that the narrator snaps it "like a finger." And then he just goes on with his business.

Because, for me, setting isn't another character. I've heard people make that argument, and that's fine for them. But for me, setting is part of each character. Another person might have snapped the branch "like he was breaking spaghetti noodles to feed the church." That's a different type of character.

For me, setting infects the characters and informs the reader. Setting isn't about the world surrounding the characters of my stories. Setting is that shadow spreading from within the characters -- their world extended.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A Reader's Opinion on Setting

Sorry, I missed character week last week. I had some computer issues that caused me not to be able to post.

But this week is setting.

I'm going to take a different view on this. Not as a writer, but a reader. When I read a crime fiction novel--one of my favorite aspects is setting. In fact, I often will choose or not choose a new writer/novel based on where it's set.

Is that weird of me? Probably, but hey, I'm the reader, it's what I do.

I love to read about new places in a America. Love to hear about downbeat midwestern cities. I also enjoy checking out how writers write about a place I've been. Does it feel like a living breathing place, or just an area that any story can be set?

But what's really cool to me is to read several writer's different takes on one place. I love Lehane's Boston, the dark, gritty blue collar world of neighborhood bars and backstabbing friends.

But it's quite different from Robert B. Parker's Boston. Parker's Boston is one for white collar crime and dark academia. So many others write about Boston as well, and each take is just a hair different.

And that's what makes setting cool. The same place can be very different in each author's hands, but at the same time, you catch the similarities--the virtual walking tour of places.

Does Setting draw you to read a novel?

Does it chase you away?

Monday, November 14, 2011

A Story, In Any Other City

The majority of stories can happen anywhere. The percentage of stories that are completely limited to one location is small. In part, this is because people are people. There may be variances for cultural elements and aspects, but very few places have a lock on a specific type of story that's unique to them.

I think that actually makes choosing a setting harder, rather than easier. What seems to go into the choice has more to do with the author's comfort, perceived popularity and sellability. Yes, I'm one of those Canadian authors who was told to move my story south of the 49th parallel or I wouldn't sell to a US publisher.

I failed to mention at the time I really preferred the idea of selling to a UK publisher. However, I did refuse, and part of the reason I refused to move WHAT BURNS WITHIN out of the Greater Vancouver Area had to do with the issue of believability.

You see, the idea for WBW had come to me when my ex-husband was involved with the fire department. He was on call, and one night, in the middle of the night, the alert sounded. He responded over the radio, confirming he was on his way, while I lay in bed, suddenly not able to drift back to sleep because I realized in that moment that anyone could know I was at home alone. Anyone with a scanner - and as a former journalism student, I knew college kids who kept those things on hand. People around town who were nosy, the rural pot-sellers... Anyone could know I was home alone.

It started to scare the crap out of me. And the idea for a story was born.

In order to make the setting work, I needed a larger urban area than where we lived at the time, but it needed certain technical realities. Not all cities have volunteer fire departments, or volunteer officers who are on call. Some have full-time firemen, like my friend, Steve, who serves in New Westminster. In order to position the story correctly, I had to make sure I checked off certain boxes, or anyone with local knowledge would laugh in my face.

No way did I want a story that fell apart on a technical snafu.

I also knew the GVA and was comfortable semi-fictionalizing it, while playing largely in the real world.

I refused. And the series sold to a US publisher anyway.

I started working on HARVEST OF RUINS in 2007, when I was in Canada. I originally planned to head back to my hometown and present a fictionalized Muskoka. I knew the landscape intimately, and for me, HARVEST was a story that really wasn't location-specific. It didn't hinge on technical issues the way WBW did.

When things changed in my life, I looked at moving HARVEST south of the 49th, and began the painstaking process of researching for a Maryland location that would work. Little did I know that I was going to be living in an area lacking in lakes, which played a critical role in the original draft.

Modifying the draft for the location wasn't that difficult, though. Tim Hortons became Royal Farms. Webers became Double T Diner. A lot of the substance could stay the same...

Except for a main secondary character, who just happened to be Native. Or Aboriginal. The term we used to use was (no offense intended) Indian... which reminds me of a story about translations, but I'll get to that in a minute.

Where I grew up, in Muskoka, I had classmates who were Native. Not many, but some. But in Maryland? Uh, not going to happen. There was a very different reality in this area after it was settled, and the Aboriginal populations were largely displaced.

Those are the kinds of things I wouldn't have even thought about if I hadn't spent a lot of time here, and wasn't married to a Baltimore boy. Although, in the end, I moved the location back to Canada, revising the manuscript for a different setting was a worthy process that taught me a lot. It also made me aware of just how important setting research can be, and reinforces to me why it will always be easier for writers to stick with what they know when it comes to setting, because it's so easy to get something wrong.

You've got to be comfortable with what you're doing. If you aren't, I think it'll come through in your work. Own what you know, and you can make it work.

Oh, and that story about the word 'Indian' and translations? When WBW was being translated into Japanese, my translator asked me about a reference using East Indian in the text. She wanted to change it Indian or Indonesian. I had to explain why it is that in North America there's a distinction between 'Indian' and 'East Indian', and that it doesn't strictly mean Indonesian, either. For her, understanding the history of the term in the context of North American culture was an eye-opener. She had no idea about the localized history of the word and how it used to be used.

Prior to the experience of working with a translator, that wasn't something that would even have occurred to me. How we portray setting is not only a challenge for us in our own language, but can present unique challenges for translators as well, and that's a reality that may not be avoided by fictionalizing a setting, either. Whether you write about a real place or one you've created, most of us write with some grounding in reality and culture, and those are components of setting that we will have to contend with in our work.

When appropriate, there are those who render the setting as its own character within the text. That's not always necessary - or appropriate - for the telling of a tale, and it lies within the writer to strike the balance that best suits their story.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

All the world is a stage

by: Joelle Charbonneau

Welcome to theme week #3. This week we are going to be chatting about setting.

When you tell a story you have to cover certain things – who, what, why and where. For me, the where determines so much about what kind of story a person is going to tell. A story set in a rural, economically depressed town is going to be very different than one set in downtown Chicago. For me, the setting is more than just a backdrop to a story, it is a character that lives and breaths just like all the other people who populate our books. The houses, stores, landscape and socio-economic climate of a book impacts everything in the story from the tricks a sleuth can use to investigate to the personalities of the characters who populate the area.

For my Rebecca Robbins books, I deliberately chose to set the stories in a small town in Illinois. Why? Well, one, because I know Illinois and while I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, I have been in many of those small town and feel like I know and understand what those towns look like and the kinds of people who live there. But more important, I needed a town where a roller rink was still a vital heartbeat of the community. In the suburbs, roller rinks are fun places to hang out. Kids and adults enjoy spending a few hours in one and then move onto the next activity. And if the roller rink closed…well, they’d just go to another one a few towns over.

In smaller towns, father away from the cornucopia of activities found in more urban areas, roller rinks are a gathering place for people of all ages. It is part of the culture of the town. The mere possibility of closing the rink would create immediate conflict. Small towns also have a lot of personality. There are less big box stores. Shops often reflect the owner’s style. And let’s face it—in small towns everyone knows everyone’s business. There is no blending into the background which means people tend to embrace their differences as opposed to trying to be like everyone else.

In my upcoming Paige Marshall mystery series, I dropped my opera singing/theater loving character in the north shore Chicago suburbs. (Because face it—there aren’t a lot of professional opera jobs in rural Illinois!) The setting creates a completely different kind of conflict for an amateur sleuth. For one thing, there are more cops. Something tells me those police officers are probably not inclined to let someone get away with poking their nose in a murder investigation. Not to mention the fact that almost every block in the suburbs has that neighbor that watches ever car and pedestrian coming down the street. It isn’t exactly easy to snoop around a suspect’s house with the neighborhood watch on patrol. The more urban setting is important to the story and creates a whole different feel and investigative style to the book than perhaps I might have originally intended. But that’s what makes it fun.

For me, the setting impacts everything in the book. Character expectations, motivation and relationships are all driven by the setting. Which makes me wonder, as a writer, how does the setting you’ve chosen for your books impact the way you tell your story. And for all the readers out there – do you find yourself drawn to reading books set specifics kinds of settings? Inquiring minds want to know!