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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Importance of Settings

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 Morris 2014

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 Way Home, 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.

Man 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.

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