Every story has a setting – it’s what fixes its characters and its narrative in place, making the reader part of the action and sucking us deeper into the story. And when an author successfully carries off this sensory blending of atmosphere and environment, without showing the harsh edges, it’s enough to make your heart sing.
Take for example, Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book – ‘The child stepped out of the house a little hesitantly. The fog wreathed around him like a long-lost friend. And uncertainly at first, then with increasing speed and confidence, the boy tottered up the hill.’ The reader knows what evil stalks the adventurous, unaware toddler and we urge him on, wanting to hide him, like the protective cover of fog.
In Stephen King’s novelette, The Body, (later made as a brilliant movie starring River Phoenix, Stand by Me), the main character, a 12 year-old-boy describes a treehouse built by him and his mates. ‘When it rained, being in the club was like being inside a Jamaican steel drum … but that summer there had been no rain.’
King draws the reader into the characters of these four Louisiana boys in the 1960s, and the hot, dry, dusty town where nothing ever happens … and into a sense of foreboding of what lays ahead for them. This story, along with Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, two of four novelettes in King’s Different Seasons, stands out from all the horror stories he’s re-known for.
But what I really wanted to discuss on this blog is PLACE – that sense of somewhere significant in your own psyche, memory, senses, history, whatever.
A number of stories I’ve written (published and unpublished) are set in real places – like north-west Queensland’s Mitchell-grass plains, a sub-tropical rainforest and a dreamtime mountain in the Gulf country.
I’d been painting impressions of these half-remembered landscapes of my childhood for years without wondering about the repetition. It wasn’t until I got involved in writing that someone asked me why I used the landscape as another character in my stories.
I probably kept a blank face, not wanting to show my thoughts. Just like in the art world, it always intrigued me the way people see different things within paintings. Does this happen with your writing? That people perceive more than what you thought you wrote? Like some undercurrent?
All I know is that until I get the setting right, using all five senses plus more, to imagine and feel it, plus knowing the history and pre-history of that place, I can’t write my characters into it.
Before that happens I need to go back to the landscape, with notebook in hand, to absorb the sights, smells, sounds and feel of what is there; to wander alone with every sense zinging and receptive.
What do you do to get your ‘setting receptors’ zinging? Do you feel confident? Or do you feel more comfortable exploring the landscapes of humans – the characters?