Category Archives: setting

1

Write where you know

“Write what you know” is probably the most contested piece of writerly advice out there. Yes, writing what you know gives you authority and a personal approach; no, writing should be about discovery and taking readers to a new place.

So I was intrigued by a profile of the novelist Chris Pavone from yesterday’s Times , which highlights how his new thriller is set in the publishing world, a world that, according to the article, is a rare setting for a novel, especially a thriller, because it’s “too cerebral, too dominated by meetings, too absorbed by reading manuscripts and filling out profit-and-loss reports to make riveting fiction.”

Now, Pavone’s justification for such an ostensibly boring setting is that, “Any setting can be a good setting for a novel.” But in reality, it’s a classic case of write what you know, since Pavone served as a longtime nonfiction editor at Clarkson Potter. And not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that–clearly Pavone’s book focuses on the classic thriller tropes of action and suspense, rather than the drudgery of acquisition paperwork!

But it did get me wondering about setting in general, and whether it’s more constructive to place a story in a world with which you’re deeply familiar, or whether an exotic locale or industry is more helpful, especially for thrillers, as the article suggests. Personally, I’m not really sure–I’m usually drawn to thrillers that avoid NYC or DC as a home base, but then again, so many thrillers set abroad follow the same old trajectory of a former agent in exile forced back into action.

Where do you fall on the divide? Set the book in a world you know, or a world you don’t? And how does familiarity with the setting (or lack thereof) inform your plot?

4

Getting away from it all

For almost two weeks now, I’ve been on the road. I spent a few days in Portland, Oregon, at the Willamette Writers Conference, followed by a week of vacation in mid-coast Maine. And actually, I’m still in Maine, working from our rental house just a few hundred yards from Pemaquid Beach. Even today, with the clouds and fog rolling in, it’s pretty spectacular…

But as I’ve been out of the office and working in various non-NYC places for a good stretch now, I’ve been thinking about locale, access to information, and how they inform a writer’s work. At home in New York, there’s information everywhere you look–screens everywhere, newspapers galore, even news tickers on the side of buildings. And with that, I feel like NYC writers tend to work on a fairly broad canvas of topics and locations.

On the other hand, when I was out in Portland, i.e., a mid-sized, west coast city, the news and information seemed like a mix of local and national concern. And I saw that reflected by the writers I met at the conference, whose pitches seemed fairly evenly split between Oregonian subjects or more worldly concerns. It held for kids’ books, too–50% west coast-based stories, 50% fantasy.

At the same time, here in Maine, information gathering  is very much an individual responsibility–nobody’s going to tell you what’s up in the world besides the Red Sox (hopefully) losing. And fittingly, whenever I meet writers in Maine, their work almost always has a Vacationland focus–maybe they’ll stretch it to Massachusetts, but not much farther than New England.

So, writers, I’m curious: what’s the correlation between your location and your subject matter? Or, to put it another way, how much does the outside world inform your work? BTW, no value judgments here–no one thinks less of Barbara Cooney or Robert McCloskey for staying close to home, and the truths in their books have proven to be universal. But I’d love to hear your thoughts and help me reconnect to the outside world!

9

Let’s think about place

I saw this review in The Seattle Times for the new David Guterson novel. The book is set in Seattle, and it sounds from the description that it’s an important part of the book. It got me to thinking about settings and the inherent importance of where a novel takes place.

So much of the best fiction has a strong sense of place. Think The Help or Gone with the Wind. Could you imagine them set anywhere but the South? And what about Carl Hiassen’s books set in Florida, where he has lived all his life? Or Annie Proulx’s excellent The Shipping News, which is like taking a trip to Newfoundland.

Even on my own list, Amy Plum’s Die for Me takes place in Paris, as advertised on the cover with a gorgeous image of the Eiffel Tower in the distance. And the just-released middle grade fantasy Darwen Arkwright and the Peregrine Pact by A.J. Hartley is set in Atlanta. I recall when I sold the book that one of the conversations with his publisher was about how few books are set there, and how that fact was one of the things that set the book apart.

So, for those of you writing fiction, how do you decide where your novel will take place? And is it one of the first things you think about when you start writing? Or do you think of the setting before you even begin?

I think it’s as important as plot or character development to have the right atmosphere in which to tell your story. It’s the finer details of place that really bring a novel to life, and that makes for the best kind of fiction. What are your favorite books that feature a strong sense of place?

6

Where I’ve been

When I came across the review for Evan Hughes’ Literary Brooklyn in the New York Times the other day, I jumped to read it. Despite that this was the first I’d heard of this book, the title alone was enough for me to get interested. While many of the authors discussed in Literary Brooklyn and this article never once have set a story there, their writing lives were still enmeshed in the distinctive borough. Of course, there are the mainstays in literature—both contemporary and historical—that would be entirely different stories if they took place anywhere else.

There’s more to my excitement about this book than pure literary interest in the lives and writings of good authors. Had Literary Brooklyn been written three years ago, I would have cared far less, but because I now call Brooklyn home, the connection to place has obviously been strengthened. I reread A Tree Grows in Brooklyn several months ago for the first time since my teens and marveled at my newfound ability to picture the streets Francie Nolan grew up around (albeit in a very different context and time). While an unfamiliarity with a book’s setting hardly detracts from one’s enjoyment of it, there’s a certain thrill and delight that arises from reading the names of places—specific streets or shops—that before had been common and everyday.

I’m hardly alone in this sentiment. It’s why books about specific states, towns or regions sell far better in those places than they do anywhere else. In the past, I’ve chosen to read books that I wouldn’t normally have been jumping out of my chair to get at simply because they took place near to my hometown, or later, in and around cities I’d lived in. The more localized the better. This connection to the author as well as anyone else who has or will read the book, though it only exists in my mind, heightens immensely my enjoyment of whatever the story may be.

I feel that this is true for everyone and I wonder how much being able to exclaim, “Oh! I know where that is!” affects literary judgment. It certainly helps local promotion for the book itself if the publisher and author can ground it firmly in a specific area. This sentimental attachment to place, no matter how many people can claim it, is a big attractor. I am clearly affected and am interested to know whether you are as well. Are there books you have read that you know you’ve enjoyed more simply because you were able to indentify with place?

4

City Mouse, Country Mouse

It might have been the abrupt change of scenery or the exhilaration of being behind the wheel of a car again, but as I drove out of the city and down through the cornfields and rolling hills of New Jersey and Maryland last week, I slowly became aware of a distinct change in my perception of, well, everything. Living in a city is so insular; the things I notice most often have to do with other people. Interactions with others are thrust upon me regardless of whether I want them or not. Whether it’s being smashed up against six other passengers on a crowded morning L train or vaguely being made aware of another’s existence as voices float in through an apartment window, you’re never really alone in a city.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing—methods of introspection and observation are subsequently adapted to suit city-living, it’s simply that I had forgotten how different it feels not only physically, but intelligently and emotionally to explore wider spaces. I began to notice scenery in a new way, different still from when such views were the norm and before I had lived quite as long in New York. Descriptors came to me and I recalled lines—some clichéd, others less so—from literature and film that made more sense from a more pastoral point of view. I began to notice myself more, too. Driving with the windows down on a long country highway with hardly another car in sight allows a lot of time for introspection.

I wonder, now that I’m back and can compare the two sensibilities with greater acuity, how this effect can apply in a literary sense. Just as one perceives books differently when read at earlier and later stages in life, surely the greater environmental impacts on a person can change this as well. And writing! Not only were my thought patterns altered, but I noticed modes of speech that I hadn’t employed since I’ve moved away from the shore came back in little spurts—phrases as well as dialect reverted back.

Of course, this escape was brief and could hardly change me permanently, but the ephemeral shifts are still interesting to note. I can’t help but wonder if my ideas for writing or taste in reading material would morph (again, I am sure only slightly, as I would of course retain my core sense of self). I can only see this as an invigorating and positive switch—like when you change shampoos and your hair is lustrous and beautiful for that first time with the new brand. And yes, I am now comparing writing to washing your hair. It’s Friday.

As it’s the season for vacations and scenery changes, does anyone have a personal anecdote or opinion on this matter?

11

Living in the Past

When I was younger, I remember several times classifying my favorite types of books as specifically “about a girl my age during World War II.” And truly, looking at the bookshelf in my childhood bedroom, that preference is quite apparent. I’ve always enjoyed historical fiction, but it seems like I would go through phases of gravitating towards certain periods in history far more than others. In my later teens, it was Renaissance Italy and nothing else and I also remember a period of mid-1800’s frontier America. While historical fiction is in and of itself a clear literary genre, the case can be made that there are a myriad of sub-genres as well, divided up by era and place.

It’s a tricky thing, writing a story that takes place in a time no one living has ever experienced, and there are many ways to go about doing it—some more successful than others. I’ve read authors who go the route of writing the entire narrative—style, structure and language included, as if they were not writing about a long past time, but instead are living it and writing as contemporaries would. This invariably, in my opinion, comes out sounding awkward and forced, no matter how accurately the form is rendered. Maybe that’s why I stuck with 20th century histories for so long; there’s less opportunity for authors to pretend they grew up in regency England.

Reading historical fiction is where I’ve gained a lot of my knowledge of, as well as acquired an interest in, history itself. Thankfully, the latter arose or else I’m sure I’d have come to believe a number of things happened or didn’t happen due to the artistic liberties allowed to authors. Novels led me to real research, reading factual historical texts on my own volition simply because I just had to learn more about certain monarchs, historical figures or events. The advent of Wikipedia has made this all the more accessible, and I sometimes have to stop reading to run over to my computer and look up some obscure or trivial piece of information simply because it played an interesting part in the plot.

My television and cinematic historical preferences, however, are wildly different from my literary ones. Recently, I’ve taken to hours spent watching episodes of Downton Abbey, North & South and Gosford Park, though I have only a small interest in books set during the same years.  My guess is that for me, some periods can be better displayed visually and others in writing, but that’s only a rumination.

Regardless, there will always be a place for historical fiction on my bookshelves, though some eras will clearly outweigh the others as my tastes change and evolve. What’s your opinion? Do you stand for historicals at all, and if you do, do you find yourself gravitating towards certain periods in history over others?

5

Literary landmarks for the kids

Welcome back, readers! Hope everyone had a good Memorial Day weekend. The family and I spent a couple of wonderful nights outside of Boston with friends, complete with all-American long weekend activities—barbecue, golf, lawn sports, etc. Even got a night off from the kids for an adult dinner at a real restaurant!

But perhaps the most special part of the trip was a visit downtown to the Boston Public Garden for the boys to check out the setting for Make Way for Ducklings. Surprisingly, there’s really not all that much in the Public Garden specifically dedicated to Robert McCloskey’s classic. There’s a group of statues of Mrs. Mallard and her chicks, but that’s really about it—yes, there are the swan boats, but they advertise no link to the book, nor is there anything to mark the island where the ducks make their home. And the only sign of Officer Michael was on an ice cream truck on Boylston Street.

Still, Henry was in heaven, partly because plenty of live ducks still make the pond their home. But more than that, I think he made the connection that here was the site where the book actually took place, and that the setting of a book can sometimes be a real place, as opposed to make believe. I have to say, I was pretty blown away by that moment of comprehension, and it made me think there must be other picture book locations I should be taking him to.

Next up is a bike ride to the little red lighthouse under the George Washington Bridge, but after that I’m drawing a blank. Any suggestions?

10

If I close my eyes and wish real hard…

There are few things more stressful than apartment hunting on a deadline. This is currently my life and I’m finding it hard to think of much else this week. Despite my determination, my efforts have still come to naught, though I’ve got a little over a week left in which to find the most brilliant new home. Or, you know, the acceptable one that I can afford in my neighborhood.

In moments of fitful insanity, I have taken to throwing all sense of realism out the window and searching for residencies either way out of my price range or in far off lands (like France! And Norway! And Portland!). Did you know that it’s much cheaper to live in almost all places that are not New York? It’s true and it makes me jealous.  In any case, after looking at the heartbreaking pictures of palatial abodes that I won’t be inhabiting any time in the near future and frantically searching for the “cozy” (real estate term for “SMALL”) spaces that I could possibly move into, I started thinking about all of the amazing houses and apartments I’ve read about an wistfully hoped were in some way real.

The Mortmain house/castle in Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle remains one of my favorite idealistic homes. The intricacies are detailed so well and the decrepit castle transformed into a modern (in mid-twentieth century terms) space has such a Romantic feel to it that it’s impossible not to want to live there. The grounds, the turrets, the moat and high ceilings all project such an air of fading elegance, which of course is the point of the story. The part of me that cries at Satine’s death in Moulin Rouge, yet kind of feels like it would be so lovely to die of consumption (the galloping consumption) as perfectly as she does, is the part of me that wants to live in this crumbling house.

Then there’s the professor’s house in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Maybe I have a thing for huge, old twisty houses? Regardless, a good game of hide and seek proves how amazing this house is. And people come just to take tours of it! And the hide and seek combined with the getting out of the way of the tours GETS YOU INTO NARNIA. Sometimes. Even without the whole “portal to another world” part, I’ve always wanted to live in a house with so many passages and rooms that you could get lost in it if you were unfamiliar (oh, now my brain is moving on to Hogwarts, where even Dumbledore doesn’t know all of its secrets, but I’m refraining and trying to stay away from fantasy/magical homes for now).

I will end with the apartment in Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog. The action of this book rarely leaves the confines of 7 Rue de Grenelle and the bourgeois Parisian address is almost too much to read about without calling Air France and demanding a ticket immediately. Much like George Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual, Barbery uses the building itself to precisely detail the lives of its inhabitants. Its history is their history and the legacies are concrete. So much is tied to family and name, but also to the floors and apartment numbers themselves. While I’m sure I’m hardly alone in my longing for a lovely European apartment (apartement?), this time size notwithstanding, it’s much easier to imagine a life as an ex-patriot when someone describes your new ideal home with such emotion and, well, elegance.

It’s long been a saying that a good book will transport you somewhere else entirely, and so I would think that this is something anyone whose ever called themselves a reader, or heck, read a book period, has considered. What spaces have you read about that you’ve wanted to go to so badly you’ve convinced yourself they’re real? It might be that the author describes them so well or that the characters that live in and around are so lively and endearing that they make the home what it is. Whatever the attraction might be, if you could pick up and move to any literary place, where would you settle down?

5

Location, location, location

by Rachel

One of the things I loved about living in San Francisco was its close proximity to Steinbeck country. No more than two hours south of the city lies Monterey, where Steinbeck set the scene for his novels Cannery Row, Tortilla Flat, Of Mice and Men, East of Eden—the list goes on. Walking along Cannery Row while smelling the ocean and hearing the gulls, or driving half an hour inland to Salinas (where the National Steinbeck Center is located) was an exciting pilgrimage for me, because, if I haven’t mentioned it before, John Steinbeck is my number one literary hero.

So, I found it fascinating to read Alison Flood’s article from the Guardian, on literary book tours. What a thrill it is to visit locations mentioned in your favorite novels! I have a few favorite New York literary hotspots I like to visit on occasion: The carousel in Central Park (J.D. Salinger’s Catcher In The Rye); Macy’s Santaland (David Sedaris’ Holidays on Ice); Pete’s Tavern (O. Henry’s Gift of The Magi), and Chinatown, Tiffany & Co., and The New York Public Library (Truman Capote’s Breakfast At Tiffany’s).

What are some memorable locations from your favorite books you’d love to visit?