Settings are not indigenous to literary fiction, they are
mandatory to all types of fiction
. Try writing a book about a beach, a
cabin in the mountains, a science lab, a wedding, or a funeral and include
nothing about the setting. If you can do that, go back to writing 101. Readers
need to know where you are taking them - a roadmap or GPS of sorts - to get them to the starting point, then take them on the journey of their life.
Let them feel, taste, smell the setting whether it’s the Blue
Ridge mountains of Virginia in Adriana Trigiana’s wonderful books or the brilliantly
colored settings she takes readers to in Italy. The hot, verdant Mississippi
landscape in Carolyn Haines’ Bones series
and the sooty, cold environment of Homer Hickman’s West Virginia books revel
in their settings and are key to creating the tone of the book within which the
characters interact. Can you imagine Miss Havisham in Dickens, Great Expectations, without her ancient wedding feast. Did you mind immediately go to a picture in the book or a movie?
Earlier this year, Michael Morris wrote a piece about his
love affair with the land and it resonated with me, sweeping me back to my
childhood and the memories of visiting relatives in North Alabama during the
summers. Even as I write this, I can smell the half-moon apple pies frying in my
grandmother’s kitchen, the warm smells of feed for the chickens and cows, the
clean freshness of sheets dried on the clothesline.
Michael had just finished reading Brad Watson’s novel, The Heaven of Mercury, a National Book
Award finalist when he penned these words.
“I love Brad’s book as much for its lyrical prose as I do
for the dead on dialect of the multifaceted characters who live in the Gulf
Coast town of Mercury, Mississippi. But more than anything, I love the town
itself, the center that escorts the reader through decades of marriage,
separation, lost love and even murder. It reminds me all too well of my own
place and people in Perry, Florida, also a small town near the Gulf Coast.
After reading Brad’s novel, I found myself tasting the salt air and thinking of
the marsh that still sits behind the beach house that my grandparents once
owned. The house, like the area, is not like the commercial high-rises of
Destin (Florida). The place is more or less a fishing village. And the house is
really a cottage, a two-bedroom structure on stilts with a wrap around porch.
Like the marsh, the house has survived decades of change in my family:
marriages, divorces, successes, bankruptcies and the passing of those who once
congregated to eat fried mullet and to picnic in boats along sandbars.”
Don’t you want to know more about Michael’s family after
reading this? It’s a family saga I would love to read. The place is vividly etched
in my mind. I want to sit on the wrap around porch, smell the marsh (read pluff
mud), and eat seafood.
“Late at night when sleep won’t come soon enough, I often
close my eyes and feel the heat of summer at my feet as I stand on the porch of
my grandparent’s house. I stick my tongue out in the air and look across the
way at the marsh, with its tall pines, sawgrass, and lanky white birds
searching for food. I stare off in the distance and in my mind, peace settles
over me the same way my grandmother’s arms used to blanket me when I was a
child. I am here…I am strong…I am at rest.” Michael
That’s what setting is all about: memories—new ones created,
old ones drawn upon. Whether the reader has visited the same spot doesn’t
matter. Once universal emotions like fear, longing, happiness, love, etc. well up, they
connect with your book and your characters. Memories of experiences are what they draw from to
understand and appreciate what you’ve written.
Michael Morris is the author of the award winning novel, A Place Called Wiregrass
, and Slow
, which was named one of the best novels of 2003 by the Atlanta
Journal Constitution and the St. Louis Dispatch. His novella, Live Like You Were Dying
, was a finalist
for the Southern Book Critics Circle Award.
in the Blue Moon published in 2012 is an inspiring book laced with a hints
of Harper Lee and Flannery O’Connor - a must read. www.michaelmorrisbooks.com