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The Power of Setting

[1]Two weekends ago, I participated in the delightful Tucson Festival of Books [2]. While on a panel with Karen Joy Fowler [3], Margaret Erhart [4] and Daniel Stolar [5], we fell into a discussion of the importance of setting and sense of place. We all expressed surprise and frustration at the lack of setting details that sometimes show up in the work of aspiring writers. I have developed entire workshops on teaching this subject and hit it hard in voice classes. Over and over, I have seen an understanding of the principles of setting kindle a breakthrough for a young writer.

What surprises me is that this is least requested subject of all my areas of teaching. Sense of place is often considered to be a secondary concern, when if fact, I strongly believe that a novel cannot be great without a powerful setting. Get setting in place, and all the rest falls together. Setting is about detail, about weather and landscape and the personalities spawned by those places.

What are your landscapes as a writer? What places speak to you? Do you know?

Often, the landscape that spawned you is the one that will enhance your work most powerfully, but sometimes we fall in love with another place, and that works, too. Megan Chance, who is a native of the Northwest, does fantastic work with historical New York City, for example, and a great many historical romance writers fell in love with England early on, and have spent their lives delving into that setting.

More often, it is the landscape of our lives that we understand most clearly. This week, I’m reading Sarah Addison Allen’s The Girl Who Chased The Moon, [6] a deceptively sweet tale about a small Southern town. Allen describes her work as “southern fried magic realism.” The books are small and charming, and have a gossamer feeling to start. But as she weaves her stories of family flaws and gifts, of death and disaster caused by all manner of human error, you feel the South woven through, powerfully, like the women who seem so artfully soft. Her language is fanciful and rich, just as a Southern story should be, and it is impossible to imagine them being set anywhere else. It’s clear from the start that Allen is a born and bred Southerner.

What are your landscapes? What places capture you completely? How do your themes connect to them?

On the same panel in which we discussed our sense of place, the writers turned to their themes. Mine is always, always, always about how some people survive harsh challenges and others simply do not. In the session, I confessed that I don’t really know why this is my question. It just is.

What is your question? Do you know? Think about it for a minute.

The Festival was held in Tucson, which is in the desert borderlands with Mexico. I had not been there before, and honestly wasn’t sure I would like all that severe landscape. It looks so austere from the air. So baked.

Driving to my hotel from the airport, I was exhilarated. Mountains ring the entire city. Strong, hard, craggy blue mountains angling into a vividly blue, low-humidity sky. The people had faces I understand—Anglo women protecting their faces with hats, black women with floppier hats, Hispanic children dancing in the grocery store aisles, Indian men with down turned lips, sun-leathered faces everywhere. Tamales for sale. In six seconds, I was smitten, and the sense of exhilaration never left me the entire weekend. (For one thing, it was warm and sunny, and it’s been a cold winter in Colorado Springs.)

I spent my last morning there out in the desert, shooting saguaros, cactuses you have seen a million times, with their Gumby arms lifted in what one woman said to me she imagined was a friendly wave hello. I had no idea there were so many of them. How magnificent they are. I wandered out on to the quietest road I have ever visited, examining their accordion trunks, thinking of the coyotes asleep in the washes, the birds making their nests in readiness for spring. I stood surrounded by vastness, covered with sunshine, and the wind blew. Next to me, a saguaro whispered, catching the wind in its spines, bending ever so slightly, calling out a little mystery. How do you live in such severe landscapes? How do you survive?

Tucson is toward the edges of the landscape that shapes my work—but just means everything I love is exaggerated. More harshness, more honesty, more magic hidden just below the surface. Of course I would love it. It’s the west. It’s mine. It’s everything I write about. Severity and sudden explosive flowerings and the need to be genuinely who you are, or life will swallow you whole.

My theme, of survival and thriving despite difficult circumstances, is perfectly showcased in the west, and it grows out of the fact that I am born and bred here, generations deep in the west.

What are your questions and themes? What are your settings? Are they working for you? (If you have not worked with some of these questions, you can print a voice worksheet from my website at http://www.barbarasamuel.com/blog/voice-worksheet/ [7] ) Have you ever had an epiphany about setting and place that made a difference in your work?

Flickr Photo by Bill Gracey [1]

About Barbara O'Neal [8]

Barbara O'Neal [9] has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life [10], which landed her in the RWA Hall of Fame and was a Target Club Pick. She is a highly respected teacher who also publishes material for writers at Patreon.com/barbaraoneal. She is at work on her next novel to be published by Lake Union in July. A complete backlist is available here [11].