Last month I shared my utter ignorance about why the Where matters in a story, confessing that Setting had never interested me much. (Read that post here.)
To me, Setting was nothing more than a nice description of the natural world, the urban world, the domestic world. And writing (or reading) about that put me in a sleepy, book-closing mood. I cared about the people in stories, not where those people hung their hats.
No surprise, the more I studied it, the more I began to understand that of course, Setting (or Place as I now think of it) is much more than location. Place drives character. Place determines the identity, values, and goals of the characters. Place drives the plot. In a way. More or less. I think.
Because I was still a little foggy and fuzzy on the whole concept, I called on my friend, Kristin Bair O’Keeffe, author of the recently-released The Art of Floating, a stunning, heartbreaking, fresh and funny novel that’s like none I’ve read before. In this novel, Place truly is a character, and, at the same time, it molds the characters. How does she do it? I have no idea. It’s as mysterious as Magic Shell.
Lucky for me, she was willing to chat about it with you, so please, keep reading to glean some of Kristin’s fabulous and witty wisdom. And then go get your hands on her novel. The prose sings arias and rock ‘n’ roll. The characters (one in particular) will get lodged in your heart. And the Place! Oh, the Place!
Take it away, Kristin . . .
Place: Getting It On the Page Whenever I teach my “The Geography of a Novel” workshop at a writers’ conference, I introduce myself as a place-passionate writer and cultural spelunker. The terms formalize my writerly addiction to place, make it seem tame and orderly, and even make me look kinda normal. But as I lead writers through the various stages of the workshop, they realize pretty damn quickly that I’m the nutball of all nutballs about place, and when I describe the crazy-ass, magical, spine-tingling, mystical roaring I feel in my soul whenever I land in a city or country with which I connect deeply and about which I know I will write, they scooch back a little and eye me warily, as you might a rabid raccoon. But despite their trepidation, most stick around, anxious to learn a little something about how to transfer a deep connection to place onto the page. Over the years and via various projects, I’ve figured out all kinds of ways to create a place on the page about which readers pant and say, “Wow, your city/country/castle/village/mountain/etcetera is just like another character in your book!” And while describing a place is a great start—who doesn’t love a spot-on description?!—it takes a lot more than that to connect readers to your setting. Here are some strategies to help you get there:
Align Physical and Emotional Topographies. Figure out the topography of your setting. Are there valleys, mountains, dunes? Hills? Caves? What bodies of water are there (rivers, runnels, lakes, ponds, puddles)? What’s the elevation? What shape is the land? And so on. Once you’ve established the topography, whether real or imagined, align it with the emotional topographies of your characters. In other words, use the physical to help express the emotional. For example, in my novel Thirsty, Klara Bozic is struggling through an abusive marriage. To get to where she needs to go both in town and life, she has to walk up and down the incredibly steep hills in Pittsburgh, where the story takes place. The emotional topography reflects the physical. And in my new novel, The Art of Floating, Odyssia Dane lives on the beach on Plum Island, Massachusetts. Her emotional responses often reflect the ebb and flow of the tide.
Collective Habits. Incorporate the collective habits of the people in your story. No matter where your story is set—big city, small town, suburb, back alley, planet other than Earth, etcetera—I guarantee that various groups form collective habits. For example, on Friday nights after a high school football game, everyone in your small town might go to Dairy Queen. In The Art of Floating, folks hang out at the local Starbucks, which is where Odyssia goes when she first realizes that her husband might be missing.
Collective Feelings. In addition to habits, people in all kinds of places have collective feelings: guilt, regret, sadness, love, anger, and so on. When something profound happens in your story, incorporate those collective feelings. It’s a powerful way to establish place. After Jackson disappears in The Art of Floating, the entire town misses him and longs for him in unique ways.
Interaction. Let your characters interact with your place. Folks don’t just live on Earth/in a town/in a house/on a mountainside; they interact with those places. And—this is important—different characters interact differently. In The Art of Floating, Odyssia adores the beach and spends every moment she can there, but television reporter Melissa Cho is so wildly uncomfortable on the very same beach, she insists on wearing a pair of yellow pumps while walking on it.
Objects. Use the objects that naturally appear in your place. In the first chapter of The Art of Floating, you see a teepee built from driftwood on the beach. As the story progresses, you get occasional glimpses of this teepee, and each time, the waves have dismantled it a bit more. In addition to helping to establish a sense of place, the teepee helps readers mark time, deepens character development (Odyssia reveals information about her missing husband via this teepee), and enhances the emotional tension in the story.
Ignition. What is it about your setting that ignites the emotions of the characters in your story? What makes people hot under the collar in relation to place? In The Art of Floating, a number of beaches on Plum Island are closed to humans for a few months every summer in order to protect the nesting habitat of a wee bird called the piping plover (this is true in “real life,” too). Some folks respect this policy; others abhor it. Each year when the temperature rises, so does the battle over the beaches. It ain’t pretty, but it becomes a vital part of the plot (which leads to my final point…).
Allow Place to Move Plot. Place and plot are not separate entities. They are pals, good buddies, opportunists; you can even go so far as to say they are delightfully entertaining codependents just waiting for you to recognize their abilities. Whew. It is a heck of a lot of work to make a place sing, but it so worth it.
Questions for you: What are some other key strategies for getting place on the page? Which novels do you love because of their strong sense of place? How do you (as a person/writer) connect to a place (anyone else experience that crazy-ass, magical, spine-tingling, mystical roaring in their soul)?
Kristin Bair O’Keeffe is the author of the novels The Art of Floating (Penguin|Berkley 2014) and Thirsty (Swallow Press 2009), as well as numerous essays about China, bears, and off-the-plot expats. She lives north of Boston with her husband and daughter, and she travels to anywhere as often as she can. Plum Island boardwalk photo compliments of Flickr’s Brian Gudzevich.