November 4th, 2007

Location. Location. Location.

It’s true in real estate and in fiction. Eudora Welty said, "Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else….” I'm Helen Hemphill, author of Long Gone Daddy and Runaround. It's my turn this week, and I’m going to talk about creating setting, and like all elements of a story, it begins with language.

Let me show you what I mean. Read this paragraph, on the opening page of Nancy Werlin’s The Rules of Survival.

That particular night in August, it was over a hundred degrees, and so humid that each breath felt like inhaling sweat. It was the fourth day of a heat wave in Boston, and over those days, our apartment on the third floor of the house in Southie had become like the inside of an oven. However, it was a date night for our mother –Saturday– so we’d been locked in.

Werlin does more than let the reader know the setting of her novel is South Boston—by describing the intense heat, the discomfort of the third floor apartment, and the disturbing revelation in the last sentence, readers know immediately that something is terribly wrong. The setting gives the reader a very clear and real picture of the McIlvane children’s abuse, yet Werlin never mentions the words neglect or endangerment. She lets setting tell the story.

Werlin focuses her description on the physical world, but setting is much more than place. In his book Place and Placelessness, Edward Relph writes, “A place is not just the ‘where’ of something; it is the location plus everything that occupies that location seen as an integrated and meaningful phenomenon.” Place, then, includes terrain, geography, weather, plant and animal life, man-made structures, and every concrete detail needed to set the stage of the story. Jane Yolan says, “Landscape comes in threes.” First, there are the large shapes of earth and sky; then, there are the singular features of foliage and wildlife, weather and season. Last, there is detail. An August night in South Boston where each breath felt like inhaling sweat.

So when you write setting, think about the full depth of the physical world. Use Yolan’s notion of threes to create a specific place and space. Then, make your setting multitask by conveying information to your reader that says something about your story beyond the description of the physical world.

Next time, we’ll talk about the sociology of setting.