KNOWING YOUR PLACE:
Or how to start creating good settings in fiction – read other people’s.
A strong sense of place in fiction is as important as well-defined characters. So here I’m looking at the ‘where and when’ of story, also known as ‘the setting’. In fact, when I think about it, setting is not an inspiring term when it comes to story making; it suggests the rigid immobility of hardened concrete, or the strict placement of cutlery for formal dining. It conveys the kind of feeling you get when a writer (possibly me) churns out paragraphs of leaden description in the hopes that ‘more’ equals ‘more believable’. It doesn’t of course. In fact somewhat oddly, too much detail obscures rather than illuminates.
Perhaps ‘world building’ is a more creative way of thinking about scene setting. This term is most commonly applied to the mechanics of science fiction and fantasy writing wherein the writers create speculative worlds that operate in ways outside our common experience. I’m thinking now of Tolkein’s Hobbiton in The Hobbit or Le Guin’s planet of perpetual winter, Gethen, In the Left Hand of Darkness. These are extraordinary places, intrinsically and comprehensively imagined. And to give such worlds existence, the breath of authenticity, the writer must journey there endlessly – in mind and spirit. Much like a pioneer in uncharted territory, they must map, document, and experience all they find there through every sense, compile their own Rough Guide if you like. Only then can they begin to bring their world to life in narrative form.
Of course the great advantage of speculative fiction is that writers can put what they like in their worlds so long as they can make it seem true in some sense. By contrast, and somewhat paradoxically, the created worlds of realistic fiction can be far trickier to construct; readers may well have knowledge of, or at least an opinion on what would or would not be present in, for example, Thomas Cromwell’s bedchamber (Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall), Jack London’s Arctic (White Fang) or Ian McEwan’s Venice (The Comfort of Strangers). Here the writer must rely on personal, concentrated experience and/or on scrupulous research in order to construct their story’s setting with acceptable faithfulness.
Having just re-read Philip Pullman’s Subtle Knife in the Dark Materials Trilogy I am struck by the obvious analogy between writers creating believable fictional worlds (whether of fantasy, realism or something in between), and Pullman’s mystical knife that can open windows from one parallel universe to another. Creating your story’s world is much like this. It is like finding a door to a room in your mind that wasn’t there before. Once you open that door you begin to furnish and populate the space you find behind it. If you happen to open the door on a shipwrecked boy drifting at sea with a Bengal tiger in tow (Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi), you will have to do some pretty nifty conjuring (as Martel indeed does) to take the reader with you every wave tossed mile and on so perilous a voyage.
But in the end, having said all this, setting is perhaps rather less about physical qualities – the obsidian tower on the hilltop or the crimson flock wallpaper in the Chinese take-away, and more about the sensation, mood and resonance that these details can evoke. The best stories aim for an intricate interplay between place, characters and action. The knack of successful world building, then, is to know everything you need to know to make the story fly, but reveal only those details that will whisk the reader away with it, all their senses firing. It’s a hard skill to learn: not to overload the kite. It takes a million words of practice.
Here are some examples of story beginnings that I think work well, luring you straight into the character’s landscape, and making you want to know more. The first is from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher.
“During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.”
So it is, with the mounting gloom of these few sentences, that Poe starts building suspense, the repeated ‘d’ consonant like a hammer blow or a tolling bell, foreshadowing the horror to come.
By contrast, the start of Neil M Gunn’s Morning Tide has quite a different mood:
“The boy’s eyes opened in wonder at the quantity of sea-tangle, at the breadth of the swath which curved with the curving beach on either hand. The tide was at a low ebb and the sea quiet except for a restless seeking among the dark boulders.”
Here we are instantly transported to the sea shore, the ‘breadth of the swath’ and the ‘curved with the curving beach’ sweeping our gaze out along the bay, while the ‘restless seeking’ of the sea among the rocks invites us to seek too. It makes us want to know: what is this place we have come to and who is this child whose wide eyes we are now looking through?
In both these openings, description of place is used to set the tone and introduce the characters. We know nothing about these people, but their circumstances are fascinating enough to make us want to find out more.
But setting can do more than this. In the following extract from Going Down River Road, Meja Mwangi uses description of place to tell us more about his protagonist. This is how he describes the Nairobi building site where Ben Wachira is working as a casual labourer:
“Work was just underway. Dark cement dust rose from the giant concrete mixer accompanied by loud squeaking and rattling and the old truck’s incessant whining. A ragged, dusty figure wrestled with the mixer’s monstrous wheel. Another scarecrow dangled in a bucket on the fourth floor and nailed wooden planks to the concrete wall. The sound of the hammer carried pathetically weak through the din below.
Ben looked up at the craggy building and shook his head. They had raised the building by four floors in eight months. They still had another sixteen to build. And the damned thing was already too high for comfort.”
Photo: Felix Masi http://felixmasi.wordpress.com/
At first sight, this passage is only about the hazards of working on a construction site. But something else is suggested by Ben’s detached view of the one scarecrow fighting with the cement mixer, and the other dangling in a bucket from the fourth floor, and then his reaction to the prospect of a further sixteen floors. There is resignation here, the lot of poor men who have no choice but work in this place. But as the passage proceeds, this situation is amplified, and we soon see that Ben is not so pliant as his work mates. He might be anxious about working four floors up, but he is furious when he goes to the site clerk and finds he is again assigned ground duties. Through his angry response we learn more about the building site, only this time it’s personal.
“‘Bullshit…’ Ground duties included manning the antique concrete mixer and eating half the dust on the site. One’s eyes and nose got plugged with the dust while the noisy looping machine slowly drove him uncomfortably close to insanity. Besides, one was always in sight of Yussuf, the drug-crazed foreman, and in this July smog the man could be bad tempered. ‘I am not doing ground again,’ Ben said.”
And now, for the sake of a complete contrast and another change of continent, let’s look at Colette’s Ripening Seed, first published in 1923. This short novel is set in Brittany where Vinca’s and Philippe’s families have long spent their summer vacations together. The two young people are on the brink of adult love, and their formerly easy childhood relationship has become fraught with unexpected moods and misunderstanding. Then suddenly into their self-absorbed midst that sees all adults as Shades, comes the mysterious Mme. Dalleray. She is beautiful, and she asks Philippe to visit her at her villa, and he finds he cannot resist. In the following scene Colette briefly evokes the scent and juiciness of carefully prepared fruit to show precisely what the older woman intends.
“Mme. Dalleray was not expecting him, or so it seemed, for he found her reading. He felt assured of his welcome, however, when he saw the studied half-light in the salon and noticed the almost invisible table from which rose a pervasive aroma of slow-ripening peaches, of red cantaloupe melon cut in slices the shape of crescent moons, and of black coffee poured over crushed ice.”
Who else but Colette could write such a scene of calculated seduction? Elsewhere in the book she is not always so economical. Ever the sensualist, she conjures her intimate knowledge of the wild Breton coast to echo Vinca’s and Phil’s turbulent feelings. It is often overblown, just as the emotions of adolescence are often overblown.
As summer heads towards autumn when the couple must separate, so the pain, regret, jealousy and disillusionment of growing self-knowledge creeps in with the mists and the chillier nights. In this next extract Phil, despite his betrayal of her, seeks out Vinca, the sudden spell of bad weather reflecting his guilt and acute awareness:
“A fine impalpable sea-mist drifted through the air and clung to his skin without wetting it. A yellow aspen-leaf detached from its branch, hovered for an instant with intentional grace in front of Philippe’s eyes…He cocked one ear and listened to the winter sound of coal being shovelled into the kitchen furnace. From another room rose a shrill protest from little Lisette that ended in a whimper. ‘Lisette,’ he called. ‘Lisette, where’s your sister?’ ‘I don’t know,’ wailed a small voice blurred with tears. A gust of blustery wind whipped a slate off the roof and hurled it crashing at his feet, where Philippe stared at it in stupefaction, as if before his very eyes fate had smashed to smithereens the mirror that brings seven years bad luck.”
And finally, and fittingly for this writer on the Edge, I come home and finish this piece by turning to a writer who once lived in my town, and indeed in a house on Wenlock Edge. People have mixed feelings about Mary Webb and often dismiss her as a writer of romantic fiction. But there is far more to her work than this, although it is true that her prose is often overwrought for current tastes. Her settings, however, always have the ring of truth, and passionately too. Here are the opening paragraphs from her short story of elder love, Caer Cariad:
“In the Red Valley were only two houses – that of Zedekiah Tudor, ferociously scarlet, and that of his God, coldly grey. The valley, bird-scorned since Zedekiah had lopped the trees and pleached the hedges, would have been mute but for the dark music of the weir, lamenting.
It was a bitter night when Zedekiah stood with Dinah, his wife, in the graveyard. They were hidden, except for the greenish moonlight, in inky gloom. When the moon tore suddenly through the driving wrack, the shadows of the graves seemed to Dinah to spring at her like creatures out of an ambush. The wind drove down the valley, howling, and Zedekiah spoke even more loudly than usual. ‘Woman, confess yer sin, by the chyild’s gave!’”
And do not tell me that you don’t want to know what happens next.
Now it’s your turn. Here’s a writing work-out.
World building: where to start
Consider the images on this page and choose one or more that particularly strike you. Take time to explore them, then for ten minutes scribble down your first thoughts about the place/situation. Review what you have written, and if a character, or narrative thread is starting to emerge, then brainstorm each of these in the same way. You now have the raw materials for world building. Next come musing, dreaming and constant interrogation of all you have gathered. This can take time. Lots of time. For now you need to fathom all the nooks, crannies and potential layers of this provisional setting, and work out how circumstance and character will interact with it. If, however, you find that a character has emerged far more strongly than either setting or circumstance, then start interrogating them. Do this in a situation where you are relaxed, like a meditation. Ask the character what they are looking at and how they feel about it, and what they are about to do, and where they are going, and what kind of place it is, and who else will be there – on and on – till your story-scape starts coming into sharper focus. Then it’s up to your creation what happens next.