Thursday, July 29, 2010

Why Place Matters

Could you imagine Harry Potter's world without Hogwarts? Would American Gods been as compelling if Shadow and Wednesday had been traveling unknown roads, unnamed places? Would Frodo and Sam's journey have been less dramatic if they hadn't crossed through Mordor?

Setting, whether it's the lush grounds of a private, magical boarding school or the vivid landscape of Americana, is, for many writers as important as conflict and climax.

Being reared, theoretically, by two great southern writers probably made me a bit biased. We southern writers are known for describing place-- those odd towns or small little cities that become essential in the progress of a story. For me, place is essential. Can you imagine a story set in New Orleans (let's say Williams' Streetcar) without the description of the hot, humid air or the sound and feel of streetcars lifting the hems of women as they walk by?

You see, setting puts your reader right in the thick of your story. Setting allows them to smell, hear, taste, feel and touch how dry the air is, how loud the trains are. Setting pulls readers from their snowy homes, huddled in front of a fireplace and forces them onto a beach, smelling the salt air, feeling the gentle spray of the tide.

The 'sense' of place influences writers. Think Faulkner and his 'A Rose for Emily.' Would Emily's attitudes been different had she not lived in Jefferson? Would her choices have been altered if she hadn't been under the constant scrutiny of her fellow townsmen?

Setting is more than just a town or city. It's much more than a home or place. Setting is time, it is the essential elements of home, whether that place is a prison or a paradise. Setting shows your readers your characters, their lives, their intentions, their way of life. In many regards, setting is the foundation on which your story is built. Without setting, there is simply plot-- a plot with no sense of purpose, no real connection.

Perhaps there are those of you that would disagree. I'm open to varying opinions. But for me when I write about alternative histories, unusual characters or mythical creatures, I know where they came from. I know what their childhoods were like, what they like to eat, what they do with their Friday nights. I know this, because I know where they got their starts. It's the where that allows me to draw attitudes, accents, opinions and intentions.

Setting simply is your story. It's the heart, the genesis of your character's life and, I think, that because it isn't all that far removed from any of our own realities, it's what makes your story alive.

What do you think? How is important is setting in your stories?


AJ Larrieu said...

I think a strong sense of place is big in Southern fiction because Southerners tend to have strong attachments to "home." (I know I do, anyway, and I've heard others say the same.) But I love any fiction in which the setting comes alive. Great post!

TS Tate said...

LOL, yeah, I knew you'd appreciate it. It's just how I feel, what I've learned over the years. Glad you liked it.

adrienne said...

I've read books that reminded me of home, books in which I loved the place but not the story, and books that were so devoid of a concrete sense place that I felt like they lived inside their own minds. "A street" is never going to be as interesting as "Rue Canal, where the air is always warm and wet." Even when I have my characters thinking deep, internal things, they're alive in a place inside their minds.

I definitely agree that Southern writers have a strong connection to place, probably because it's their setting that identifies them as Southern. Some of my favorite novels, as abstract as they seem, can be fully grounded in a place that I can identify. As I Lay Dying is a great example of that, as well as anything by Steinbeck. What would The Grapes of Wrath be without Hoovervilles and dry, dead Oklahoma farms? Nothing, really, just as The Dream of Perpetual Motion would have been essentially nothing without its steampunk, turn-of-the century Xeroville.

This is a great post, Tee. It's true that a plot means nothing without a place, and that place influences the personalities and politics of a character. Definitely good thought-material in here. :)

TS Tate said...

Oh, Bess Fran, I couldn't have said it better. Thanks for the comment.

Nathan said...

A perfect anecdote is when they filmed a version of Crime and Punishment in, of all places, Budapest! Talking Raskolnikov out of St. Petersburg was not only blasphemous, it was in a sense orphaning him in an unknown city.

TS Tate said...

LOL, yeah Nathan, that was blasphemous. Sometimes, Hollywood likes to fix what isn't broken, that's why I prefer books. :)