Setting It Up

Listening to: Ani DiFranco, “Hat Shaped Hat”

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately, a great deal of which has me thinking about setting. Specifically, settings so important to a novel that they almost serve as another character.

One of the latest books in my currently-reading pile is Invisible Writer, a biography of Joyce Carol Oates. Regular readers will know that I adore Oates* and have for years–an interesting attraction, considering I write YA contemporary fantasy. We’ll blame it on college, ‘mkay? Anyhow, the biography follows her life and makes connections between the various places she’s lived and the (mostly fictionalized) settings of her novels and short stories. Upstate New York, Detroit, even the town in Texas she hated showed up in one story. These settings are, in many cases, crucial to the events of the novel or story, the voice and the tone, and the characters and their development.

So this got me thinking about other books where setting is important. I also just read An Abundance of Katharines,** and having completed all of John Green’s novels, I can say setting is pretty important in his novels, too. Looking for Alaska: Alabama. Hot days, sultry nights, the slower tempo of Southern states all contribute, I think, to the protagonist’s frame of mind throughout. Paper Towns: Mostly Florida, can’t recall which city, but the half-finished and abandoned housing developments play a big part in the plot and the atmosphere. Katharines: Starts in Chicago, quickly makes its way to rural Tennessee. The people and customs of the area are hugely important to the plot, and some of the comedy, since the protagonist and his best friend are, respectively, half-Jewish and Muslim, in addition to being born-and-bred city boys.

My point would be, I guess, that I love books where the setting provides such a thick, heady atmosphere that it stays with you even after you close the back cover and set it back on the shelf.

And of course, we have an entire genre that is defined, in part, by its setting. Urban fantasy novels wouldn’t be urban fantasy if they were set in, say, a farming community in Iowa.***

This confluence of books about setting-heavy writers and books by setting-heavy writers led me to think about my own settings. I may have mentioned this in passing once or twice, but I’ve never gone into detail–I love Pennsylvania, I’ve lived here for all but six months of my life, and I’m kind of obsessed with setting novels here.

I grew up in the woods, see. And the woods were our playground. At our first house, we each had a section of the woods, a tiny clearing or a fallen log, that was our “house” or “store”, depending on what we were playing. The creek that meandered behind our house is still a beautiful, fantastical setting rife with possibility in my mind. And I don’t think city kids would play “Invisible Man” like we did.*****

My first book–both times I wrote it (age 12 and age 23)–was set in a fictional town in northwest PA, and if I put it on a map, it would’ve been right on top of my hometown. My second took place at a camp that I plopped down right in the middle of the Allegheny National Forest, which is all around my hometown and was a big part of my childhood. My third? Yep, you guessed it. In that one, I actually used specific parts of the town–the high school, the river, the old bridge, the cafe–and gave it a name that refers to my current town (Charlestown). My sister clearly recognized the high school, and my mom recommended changing the high school’s exterior to the middle school’s, as that added a bit more creepiness to the opening chapter.

The settings in these books are by and large important to the stories. I hope, at least, that I’ve incorporated them in a manner that adds atmosphere–small-town, forest-y atmosphere. It’s the atmosphere I live in, and the atmosphere that speaks the loudest to me. For book three, though, I veered away a bit–the main characters traveled to the mountains of North Carolina (pics 1, 3, 4, and 9) for the climax. I’ve been there once, about nine years ago now, but the area stuck in my head. I was nervous about veering from my home area, and probably only included sparse details of the surrounding area–actually, I might go back and add some, even now. But I rarely feel confident traveling via my own fiction to other places.

Which might be why I’ve been thinking about setting so much lately, aside from all the reading. Because my next book won’t take place anywhere near Pennsylvania. It won’t even, really, take place in America. The setting itself will be fictionalized, but it’ll be based on real places–islands, to be specific. This particular aspect of the novel is so important, in my mind, that I’ve mentally titled it The Island Book. I have a few actual titles in mind, naturally, but I can’t bring myself to call it anything else.

I’ll be starting it in a month or two, and even though I’m quite nervous, I’m also incredibly excited. It’s good to veer away from your comfort zone, even if it takes years to get there. And I feel like I’m ready. Everything I’ve written so far, in a strange way, has been leading to this.

How about you? Have the settings in any particular books struck you as terribly important to the novel? And if you are one of those rare (*snort*) other writers out there, what role has place played in your writing?

*And really regular readers will recall that I met her last spring, got two books signed by her and a picture taken with her, and also was told by her that I was very beautifully dressed–all facts I will make any excuse to bring up even eight months after the fact, and probably for the rest of my life.

**Note: This may be spelled Katherines, but I’m too lazy to find the book either in real life or on Amazon. Also, not in a linky-linky kinda mood, so not gonna do that either. But all of John Green’s novels are good, so maybe go look them up. His books make me giggle quite a bit, but they also dig into some of the deeper truths of life. There–I’m now finished making up for not linking to Amazon.

***Is there such a thing as rural fantasy? Settings with sparser populations, I think, can contribute hugely to the tone of a contemporary fantasy novel. I think this is a genre waiting to happen, or, more likely, one that’s already happened and it just kinda passed me by because I was too busy looking at something shiny.****

****The footnotes for this entry are getting ridiculous.

*****This game consisted of pointing and saying, “Hey look, it’s the Invisible Man!” Then, when the target looked, you said “Oh, you missed him.” Also, we made mudpies and mudballs for the Invisible Man. Whether they were “poisoned” with sticks or grass depended on whether he was evil that week or not. Yes, this was before the Internet.

11 thoughts on “Setting It Up

  1. Have you ever read “Back Roads?” Talk about this area + setting. Also “Coal Run.”

    I love setting. The first article I did for TC (our first overall btw) was about setting.

  2. Actually, I haven’t read either of those. I’ll have to put them on my list.

    Jennifer Haigh’s “Baker Towers” is another one heavy in western PA setting. Right down to the boney piles and Iron City beer. I highly recommend!

  3. Ooh I’ll check that out then 🙂 And Back Roads is one of fave books. It’s more up Indiana way but a lot of the setting and the people (even the dialogue) will make you say “Ah, yes.”

  4. I’m right there with you on setting. I love it when it comes alive. The novel I’m rewriting now needs that. I didn’t do it justice the first time around and am trying to get it right this time. Finger crossed. I’ll have to check out the books you listed. Thanks!

    Oh, oh, oh! I see on your sidebar that you read Watchers in 2008. What did you think? It’s one of my all-time favorite books. Any time I find one at a used book sale, I can’t resist buying it. I have several on hand at any given time. Then, when I find someone who hasn’t read it (and is obviously a dog person), I give it to them. I love Einstein.

  5. And yes, I cross my finger. It’s a special talent of mine. *snort* Nothing like proofreading before posting. 😉

  6. Ha, trust me, Anissa, you’re not the first to make a typo on the internet. Pretty sure it’s happened once or twice…

    If you’re really looking to make your settings come alive, definitely try those books out. Paper Towns, I think, does it best.

    Yeah, I read Watchers…to be honest, it wasn’t my all-time fave. I liked it, and it was quite suspenseful, but, well…I’m a cat person. *shrugs sheepishly*. Einstein was pretty cool, though. I want a dog like that!

  7. A cat person! Oh my… 😉

    Koontz amazed me in the fact that at the end, he had me feeling sorry (maybe even crying) for the monster. The man’s a genius.

    I’ll check out Paper Towns. I have it in my stack here, I think.

  8. Shadows of the Wind has an excellent setting. You feel like you’re there – place and time.

    Since the my walk around Assabet Wildlife Refuge inspired my book when I found and abandoned house, it played a key role in my novel.

    The novel that you started when you were 12, was that the same that I read?

  9. No, actually, it was what I consider my “first” novel–even though I wrote it twice, technically (once at 12, once at 23). Battle of the Hexes was my 3rd.

    That’s so cool how the Wildlife Refuge inspired your book. It’s amazing how we never really know where the next inspiration is going to come from…

  10. What a great question. I seem to avoid the familiar in my novels. For Forging a Legend, I used a vaguely tropical setting. Abriel has only rarely seen snow. I suppose that’s somewhat Florida-like, but I had southern Europe in mind when I wrote it. Then, she goes to Thesk, which on the surface seems inspired by Egypt. However, the slums of Thesk are straight out of Bombay, India, which I have seen with my own eyes.

    In Starcaster, the setting is supposed to be London-like. There’s a river, and there’s a bridge (the Bridge Mall). I’ve been there once, but spent less than 24 hours there.

    For my Road Trip Time Travel novel, (see my recent blog entries for details), the novel will take place along US-1, here in the south. So I will be going outside my comfort zone by staying in it!

  11. Ha, I like that Tia! Amazing the different instincts we all follow. I’ll be looking forward to how the experience of a familiar setting works for you.

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