Thursday, August 9, 2012
Why I'm a Sucker For a Fantastic Setting...
Considering I grew up in a small town in Wisconsin where almost nothing remotely interesting ever happened (yes, even the weekly newspaper's big headlines read something like this: Cow Nearly Gets Hit When Attempting to Cross Highway 8), I relied on books to help me escape to wonderful, far-off places like Los Angeles, London and the apartment building in New York where Fudge tormented his poor brother Peter in Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing.
Even at a young age, setting was absolutely crucial to me because I wanted to be anywhere but Ladysmith, Wisconsin. And maybe because I still love exploring this great big world of ours, setting still remains important to me...both as a reader and a writer myself. In fact, I can't tell you how many novels or memoirs I've purchased just because Paris was involved. Ditto for practically anywhere in Italy, Spain or even busy urban settings like Chicago, New York, Tokyo and Toronto. And when life feels chaotic and a little too crazy, there's no better escape than the fictional locale of Stars Hollow, the quirky Connecticut setting for one of my all-time favorite TV shows, "Gilmore Girls."
But locations don't necessarily have to be glamorous or grandiose to make a big impact. In the little-seen Ryan Reynolds' film Buried, he spent an entire hour-and-a-half stuck underground in a dark, creaky casket full of cobwebs, spiders and one very scary snake. But the way the filmmakers used that unconventional setting to their advantage was nothing short of genius. They made you, the viewer, feel the very claustrophobia that Ryan's character undoubtedly experienced while trapped for hours in there. In a sense, that casket was a character in a story short of people—and that's something every writer should keep in mind when writing his/her stories, too.
The setting must also serve the story well. Don't pick Paris just because it's romantic or NYC just because every one else does. You need to pick the right location for the story you're telling. For example, in my current W.I.P, Tuesday Nights in Italia, I made a slightly left of center choice of setting when I selected the Twin Cities, a.k.a. Minneapolis/St. Paul.
Not only is it an area I know well because I lived there for eight years, but for a story about people who find unexpected community at an Italian cooking school, I knew it needed to be a place where people needed a true escape. And since it's winter (or at least feels like winter) roughly half the year in MSP, I thought that would be the perfect locale for this type of story.
Plus, since there's a slew of readers who probably haven't ventured that far north before, it would be an opportunity to introduce them to a place that's way cooler—and not in the temperature-sense—than people generally give it credit for. While you never want to sound like a travel guide when you're writing, an adept storyteller can provide such a vivid sense of place that maybe the reader would enjoy it enough to learn more—or heck, even want to visit!
All that to say, setting is very important, so make it count when you write. For me, it's (almost) as important as the characters. After all, just think about how different Pride & Prejudice would've been if Elizabeth Bennet and her sisters didn't live in the middle of the English countryside. Or what if Twilight had been set in Nashville instead of the oh-so-cloudy Forks?
As you can see, those settings served their respective stories well, and a greater readership thanks Jane Austen and Stephanie Meyer (whoa, how did they make it into the same sentence?) as a result.