It’s no great revelation that authors like to immerse themselves in the locations they write about. But, the truly memorable stories are the ones in which the author develops and animates the setting as if it were a living, breathing human character. Most authors of note all have the ability to do this, but the ones that pop into my mind most often are John Berendt and Ron Rash. There are many, many more, but when I think of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, the first thing I think of is Savannah – the main characters don’t even make their way into my brain until a few seconds after recalling the book, and even then they’re a little fuzzy. Same thing with Venice. With Ron Rash’s stories, I get a very clear vision and feeling of what Appalachia is like even though I’ve barely seen any of it in person.
It’s a skill – taking a town, city, state, region even a neighborhood and giving it life. The only way to do it in my opinion is to completely marinate yourself in the location in which the story is being set. That may seem like an elementary notion but I can tell when someone has written a piece based somewhere in which they haven’t spent enough time to truly get the flavor of the scene. I think you have to live there if even for the short term in order to do justice to the location as well as the story. Now, certainly we’ve all visited places where we felt a strong connection and may feel like we immediately know the essence of that particular spot. But, it’s rare and if you spend a little more time in that place invariably you will learn that your first impression is not even close to the whole story.
Of course, what makes the character of a place are the characters in it. Physical description is not enough. You have to “feel” the pulse based on the people who live there and the stories they tell. Perhaps Berendt and Rash resonate with me because of the diametrically opposed locations they write about and the people that give breath to those locations. There’s richness between the two that makes pondering the differences so much fun – Savannah’s old school Southern hospitality mixed with depravity and the locales of Appalachia with its sparseness of resources and simplicity of life amalgamated with demons most associated with urban locales i.e. drug addiction, poverty and all that goes with it.
One of the things I love about writing is attempting to paint an accurate picture in someone’s mind with words that transport the reader into a specific scene. One of the things I dislike about writing is the time it takes to develop that scene. Don’t get me wrong – it’s fun, but when you’re itching to get your ideas from the brain to the page, it’s hard to have patience. For me, it’s like waiting for Christmas.
Here’s an example.
I’m stuck here in purgatory (Connecticut) for the next two years. CT has never been and never will be a muse for my fictional writing, it’s far too ubiquitous and uninteresting. However, I’ve decided to embark on a non-fiction piece bringing attention to a downtrodden tiny city near where I live. I have very personal reasons for taking on this project (I was spurned by a local official when I wanted to be the Economic Development person for this particular city seven years ago) and I’m hoping I’ll do a good enough job on this piece to get some action in the way of attracting business people to come in and save this little place.
It’s a tall order. But, this municipality is a gem and has lots of history and does not deserve to rot away into just another tragedy of urban blight. So, even though this is a non-fiction project, I really have to capture the core of the place and communicate it in such a way as to make people, specifically business people, want to visit and hopefully get a glimpse of the vision I see for the future of the city. That entails lots and lots of research because I’ve never lived there – but, now that I live within a few miles, I can really dip myself into the place and get to know it even better. Time is the Devil though and hopefully I can finish it in two years.
To be successful, I have to make this little city into a person and hope people fall in love with it, just like Berendt’s Savannah and Rash’s Appalachia. I need to meet with and interview all the people who make up the place – old residents, new residents, business owners, politicians, hopeful politicians etc., and communicate the collective personality to the reader.
Telling a story without an accurately developed portrayal of the location as a character is like a body without a skeleton – an amorphous blob with no definition.
I know what you mean exactly. I remember when I was writing my first book, which takes place in a desert. I had to do tons of research into the plants and animal life. It was actually fun, though.
Developing the setting is almost as much fun as creating human characters.