“It is not down in any map; true places never are.”
-Herman Melville Chapter 12 Moby Dick
By K.Allen McNamara
In my just-hatched first draft of a novel, the story originates in Boston and moves north to a fictional town in Maine. It is not on any map to quote Melville but it is to me and my characters a true place. To be a successful setting, this town must also resonate as such with the reader.
Settings are characters in our novels; they may be actual physical cities or they may be a completely fictionalized place, but fundamentally, they must truer than true. In order for the reader to believe in the settings and to believe the characters actually inhabit these interior and exterior landscapes, settings have to be beyond true.
Many readers and writers would easily agree that Setting is critical to every novel - could Alice McDermott’s Charming Billy be without Queens, New York and it’s Long Island cottages? Or J.M Coetzee’s The Life and Times of Michael K. exist without it’s Cape Town? Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club without San Francisco and the interior landscape of the mahjong table? No. Yet, many would argue that these are real places or items (in the case of the mahjong table), so it is relatively easy for the author to orient the reader and get on with the story. However, I contend it is the skill with which these authors weave the real place settings into their novels that makes us feel grounded in the characters. Grounding is essential.
Likewise, authors who create fictional places must establish a believability in the landscapes, the towns, the buildings and the rooms in which their stories are set. Jenny Milchman does this in her novels which are set in or near the made-up town of Wedeskyull, NY and the same occurs with J.K. Rowling’s Hogwarts and the wizarding world. These fictional places ring true for the reader because they are grounded with references to many images or items we (readers) can connect to or are familiar with and thus these references moor us. Only after we are anchored, may we begin the journey with our character.
In Richard Russo’s essay: Location, Location, Location: Depicting Character Through Place, found in Creating Fiction: Instruction and insights from teachers of the Associated Writing Programs. Edited by Julie Checkoway (found here), this well-established author explores the necessity of SETTING to the novel. How setting affects characters is integral. Russo writes about his first novel Mohawk and of how he had originally set the first draft of this novel in Tucson, Arizona. Although he doesn’t remember much about the original draft, he does recall how a friend, who agreed to read and to critique the draft, pointed out that his setting - his Tucson setting-seemed forced and more like tourist brochure than actual place. Further, his friend highlighted that the most lively bits of the novel occurred when Russo’s protagonist, Anne, was younger and growing up in a mill town in upper state New York.
These passages - the ones set in the fictional mill town where Anne was raised, were the ones that rang true and clear; furthermore, Anne the adult could be traced back to these very mill town settings. In essence, the map of the mill town was imprinted on Anne and it colored whom she had become. This upset Russo greatly, because the mill town Anne was from was not unlike the mill town he had grown up in and had spent, by his own admission, most of his life trying to escape. And yet these were the pieces in his fledgling novel that refused to be denied. This was not what he expected.
Russo writes: “Yes, I knew that place was character, but I knew it without somehow, believing it. Otherwise, how to explain the sense of wonder I felt in the rewriting, the reimagining, of the book I eventually published as Mohawk? How else to explain the surprise I felt when, having created the Mohawk Grill from the memory of the half dozen greasy spoons I frequented with my father, I discovered enough vivid characters to occupy every stool at the Formica counter?” How indeed.
The essay continues separating interior landscapes/indoor settings from exterior landscapes. Russo cites Mary Gordon’s “The Important Houses” found here (or at the New Yorker if you have subscription) as an example of interior settings that illustrate how setting gives us characters. In this short story, Gordon gives us characters (whom we never directly meet) through the descriptions of these houses and the rooms these characters possess. With regard to interior settings, Russo states “...even beginners understand and accept the basic principles of the interior setting-that a person who owns an ice bucket and silver cocktail shaker is different from someone who owns a claw-foot tub.”
Exterior landscapes or places are, Russo admits, more mysterious. The relationship between character and exterior place is much more tenuous but there is a connection nonetheless and it shouldn’t be ignored. To ignore the exterior setting is to set the character adrift in an ubiquitous place. How can one believe the character is really where they say they are - in the desert, at the beach, in a forgotten mining town-if we are not grounded in the setting? Russo concludes we need to feel oriented and we can do that anywhere (on a mountain, in an alley, at a ballgame) “but that we [can’t] feel oriented either nowhere or everywhere [we have to be somewhere].” Connections between the place and the character must be made no matter how subtly if we are to become immersed in the story. Without knowing where we are, we cannot move forward with the characters on their journey; we can not go from beginning to middle to end.
He concludes “In the end the only compelling reason to pay more attention to place to exterior setting, is the belief, the faith, that place and its people are intertwined, that place is character, and that to know the rhythms, the textures, the feel of a place is to know more deeply and truly its people.”
Russo warns against the temptation to use “verbal shorthand” as he calls it for writers who plant their characters in a Burger King. While placing characters in Burger King brings certain elements to the reader quickly, it detracts from fully rendering the setting because it truncates the setting. In essence, the Burger King acts a placeholder and does what so many writers complain is happening to many physical landscapes, it fails to nourish and fails to provide the joy a well-wrought setting does. The placeholder homogenizes the setting and makes it generic and bland.
He does offer some advice with regard to how to handle setting in fiction:
Describe Selectively - “the relative importance of place to any given story is independent of the amount of description given it.” He recommends John Cheever’s Shady Hill stories. He states that these stories have more to do with the daily rhythms of life that reveal the place without an overabundance of description Rendering passive details active ie: whether the characters can walk to a place or hot the mid-morning sun is makes us insiders not observers.
See Clearly From the Start - although he says it is tempting to render a scene out more fully later too often when we try to later the details invalidate the scene. “If a character can grow out of place...it follows that place cannot be the thing that is “grafted on” late in the process.”
Create Distance - Russo firmly believes he cannot write about a place he in which he currently resides. “I’d rather make a mistake, get something physically wrong...than be dictated by literal reality, than place intuition and imagination in a straitjacket.”
Use Research Selectively - He cautions against knowing every fact about a place. “An intimate understanding of a place can lead to character breakthroughs, but ...the literal can stifle the metaphorical.”
A Product Of Place - Russo firmly believes he is a product of place. There is a strong link to his hometown that is present in him, so to it is with his characters and their places. Ask yourself - what are you a product of and then you will be closer to understanding what the dominant force in your writing will be. But don’t neglect setting it needs and deserves a certain amount of fanfare.
Conjuring a town that doesn’t exist may seem daunting but not if one considers that in actuality all settings are fictionalized versions - even the real places. Just as characters must convince the reader of their reliability, the setting must convince the reader it is real. Setting does this in two ways: by how it influences the characters and the results it’s existence may have on the character. With this in mind, I’m ready to re-vision my novel. I can’t wait to see what my reimagined, rewritten novel will become. One thing for sure, it won’t be set in Tucson Arizona and it won't have a Burger King.
*photo credit: Moments Like This by Victoria Vierstra