The packers are here. Yes, this very hour. We’re moving. Not down the road, across town, or even as close as a state away. We’re traveling 1,500 miles north to an entirely new place, another world for all intents and purposes. By this time next month, I’ll be there and not here. This present hour will be the shadowbox memory in my mind.
So while men stack my books in brown boxes and seal them up with packing tape, I’m standing here at my office window, looking out at the mighty Franklin Mountains and the parched Rio Grande. They’ve been my writing companions for nearly a decade. From here, I’ve watched the sunset light up that rocky ridge as red as a bonfire. I’ve felt the anxious anticipation of a summer sandstorm’s approach. I’ve opened this window to let in the rare scent of desert rain. I rooted my mind—reality and imagination—within the frame of this place.
Place. Such a powerful thing. A story world cannot be composed without first being grounded in a place and time. The setting is the stage on which the characters and action are invested.
This topic of place came up in a group of novelists on Facebook. Aline Ohanesian explained, “With my first novel, I felt a string of personal connections to the place/setting of Central Anatolia where my grandparents were from. I grew up listening to stories about the old country until I felt nostalgia for a place I’d never been.”
Hilary Zaid was passionate that “place is inextricable, essential, and informs everything else. A novel is steeped in it, as an object in a vat of dye.”
Sandra Hunter agreed, “I’m with Hilary. For me, setting informs everything. It provides dimension to character, explains root causation, as well as conflict and just about every other thing.”
Going to my own work for evaluation, I find that the settings have always been the genesis. In The Mapmaker’s Children, the novel began with a West Virginia house hiding a secret. The culture and history of the Underground Railroad in that specific location was the catalyst for the characters’ journeys. The landscape (environmental to social) directly influenced the plot action.
I was led to write The Baker’s Daughter after moving to El Paso, Texas, and meeting a German woman selling baked goods at the farmer’s market. I knew Garmisch, Germany, having been there as a child and visited often as an adult. The two places are as significant as the characters that hail from them. They don’t align naturally and yet, they align authentically.
And right there, we circle back to Hunter’s comment: conflict in setting is story gold.
So now, I’m flipping the coin. If setting is such a forceful ingredient in our writing, wouldn’t it be equally potent in our real lives? We all agree it is the bedrock to our creative worlds, but what about our personal ones? [Read more…]