PhotobucketFor the past three weeks, I’ve been traveling. As often happens, it has made me think deeply about setting and sense of place in fiction, and how powerful that backdrop can be, how particular. It’s all about the details.

My first stop was a ranch in Texas. Now, Texas is a big place, and a “ranch in Texas” doesn’t tell you very much except that there will probably be cows and people with drawls somewhere in the background. I have some aunts and uncles in west Texas, and that’s as dry and flat and severe a place as I’ve ever been. When I visited as a child from Colorado, the lack of anything to pin down the horizon made me feel dizzy, as if I would fly away into the atmosphere, and no one would know or care. I had a friend who drove me through East Texas, with azaleas in bloom, and there were probably cows there, too, but it was a hot, humid, languid place, not at all like the wind-blown plains of the west.

The ranch I visited this time was in southern Texas, right on the edge of the hill country. One afternoon, I walked from the bunkhouse to the gate by the road, crossing the surprising turquoise-colored river. A bunch of cows and their pie-faced calves decided it would be all right if I passed them, and a playful red horse danced along the fence around a grove of pecan trees. Live oaks bent graceful arms to the earth—enchanting trees, magical. Fire ants bit my toes, and you knew there were scorpions and rattlesnakes and copperheads in the leaves—a kind of danger that makes my skin crawl. I thought with admiration of the grit of the original settlers who braved such a hostile, beautiful land and the humans who live here now. Who are they? Tough, tough as the cactus in the fields. Chatty as the land is lonely. Hard-working, because the wildness will come creeping right back in if you turn your back for a second.

Two days later, it was up to the mountains in my own backyard, to a little town on the edge of the Collegiate Range of the Rocky Mountains. Here is a landscape of blues—dark blue mountain sides, rubber-blue sky, sagey blue pines and flax growing in tufts. The dangers in Texas are small and fierce—snakes and bugs and stinging things. In the mountains, I carried an air horn in case I ran into a bear, and water because dehydration is a constant danger in the thin dry air above 9000 feet. The weather is harsh, the landscape unforgiving, eye-splittingly beautiful.

Who comes here? Who lives here? Kamikazees, that’s who. Daredevils roaring down the rivers, mountain bikers flying over mountain trails. But also the old men coming to fish in their thirty-year-old Suburbans. Old Native American women with floppy breasts beneath heavy turquoise necklaces. Taciturn people, because around here, actions speak louder than words, and baby, you better know what you think you know or the mountains will kill you dead.

What story is born here? What characters emerge from this landscape? How does the landscape influence the tale?

My last stop was New York City for ten days, and we moved through the streets and tunnels on the trains from one end to another, Brooklyn to the Bronx, Times Square and our little apartment in Chelsea where we found our favorite Vietnamese and coffee shop. A breathtaking whirl of lights and action and movement and things to do. The smell of the city—slightly sour and damp; full of spice and grime and exhaust—always makes my heart beat faster. There is nowhere on earth so full of possibilities, or stories, and I grow a little drunk on it, sitting on a train, looking at a knot of humans I have never seen and will never see again, thinking of the story of the young woman’s earrings, and the tale of that old weary man with grizzlings of beard. It seems I should look at them carefully, bear witness to this moment, to this gathering of strangers.

The dangers here are crossing streets and in dark tunnels and that last subway car late at night. Purely human predators. Flat-eyed boys with nothing to lose, men who fell from grace so long ago that warmth is hardly a memory.

Who lives here? Everyone, that’s who. Girls with too much skin showing and girls in plaid school skirts and skinny rich matrons and gaggles of artists and flocks of career girls in pretty stockings. Eavesdropping is a glory, and no one chatters, but you can find a conversation anytime you want.

What stories are born here? How does the city frame a novel? How can you use it?

For a month or so, I’m home again, and thinking about how to add more depth in sense of place to my current manuscript. Setting is partly the geographical details of concrete canyons or pecan groves or blue mountains, but it is also the humans who inhabit that physical landscape, and how they have adapted to it. What is the weather? There have been terrible tornados this season—how do people cope with that threat in the landscapes that spawn them? I visited Melbourne Florida a couple of years ago, and was gobsmacked by the evidence of the hurricanes that had gone through—never guessing, never even coming close to imagining the force of winds that could shatter all the windows in an entire string of hotels, but more particularly: I never realized that of course the signs and streetlights would all be gone, knocked down, knocked out.

Details. Who settled this country and what did they bring to it? Who works and lives there now?

Over the weekend, I attended a street fair in town, and kept noticing young people with prosthetic limbs. You don’t pay attention for awhile, but on the third one, who also had severe burn scars on both arms, I realized they were soldiers. Out with their families, in shorts and t-shirts, just like everybody else. Recovered. Using those prosthetics quite well, thanks.

That’s part of the landscape, too.

What are your best tricks for detail work like sense of place? Do you find it easier to write about your own world or one that’s exotic (and therefore possibly more interesting)? Can you recommend a book you think has a great sense of place?

Photo courtesy Flickr’s CarrPhotography

About Barbara O'Neal

Barbara O'Neal has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life, which landed her in the Hall of Fame. Her latest novel, The All You Can Dream Buffet has just been released by Bantam Books in March. A complete backlist is available here.