Settings

One of the things you learn in any fiction writing class is the importance of setting–a reader needs to be able to “see” where you’ve located your story. Sometimes writers can focus on the plot and the characters to the exclusion of setting. Sometimes setting can be just as important as memorable characters or a finely detailed plot.

When your work is a novel, unless it stays in one place for the length of it–like Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians or Murder on the Orient Express–you have to do some research if you’ve never been there. That’s a key component of the writing, because a reader might have been there and can spot the errors.

When John Updike got the idea for The Witches of Eastwick he had the perfect small town in mind–Wickford, RI. However, when he went to the town to research and people got wind of the plot–three witches in the 1970’s who take petty, and not so petty, revenge on neighbors–they threatened law suits if he used the name of the town. Updike let them think they won. The book’s title is The Witches of Eastwick, but if you read the description of Eastwick in the first few pages you recognize Wickford right away. And it was the perfect setting for this quirky novel about the devil coming to earth. (What would have been the difference had the Wickfordians not been such typical New England prigs? Maybe it would have been a tourist destination–it’s a quintessential New England town–instead of a town you drive through to get to the Newport beaches.)

I grew up in a rural area near a small town, so those are settings I’m comfortable with. I can tell from a story if someone has only seen a picture of a farm or gone to one. I spent a lot of my life in a large urban area and worked in the Nation’s Capital for the most part. I’ve spent a great deal of time in New York City, so I get the urban setting and am also comfortable setting a story in busy cities. I also like the juxtaposition of city and country–it’s something that’s never quite been overcome by urbanization.

I’ve done some world travel–a modest amount–to England, Scotland, and other places in Europe. I can insert any place I’ve visited in a story with ease. Some of my work is based in Eastern Europe, and that’s an issue. I’ve never been there, and, frankly, unless you’re a high-paid, commercial novelist, extensive travel to research your settings can be beyond the budget.

Atlases can give you maps and facts and figures–all good, of course–but Google Earth can put you there. Its “Street Views” options can put you in the city or town or countryside you want to write about. It’s still not as good as being there, but it can give you a starting point. The next point is finding someone familiar with the area to give you the personal touch or cultural memes for a setting. I had a friend who had traveled extensively with USAID, and he was always able to give me a good read-over for settings.

Some writers overcome the setting issues by creating completely fictional ones. Whether in fantasy, other genre, or literary fiction, that can eliminate any setting errors or hard feelings from the locals. For his collection of linked short stories, In an Uncharted Country, Clifford Garstang created Rugglesville, VA. For her first book of linked short stories, Thrown Out,  and an upcoming series of novels, Jennie Coughlin created Exeter, MA. Both constructs are real; you can “see” yourself in either place. They feel real. Even in fantasy or science fiction, if you create your own world, people still have to be able to “walk” through it. It’s not enough to say “we’re on a spaceship” or “we’re in a fairy land.” The writer has to give the setting depth.

Which do you prefer–setting your work in known locales, or do you create your own world?

National Short Story Month – The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Writers

I was pretty excited about National Short Story Month (May 1 – 31). Though I don’t consider short stories my first choice in writing (despite the fact my only published book is a collection of them), I read a lot of them. My intention for this past month was to pick 10 short stories meaningful to me and write about each. Because of a cold that knocked me for a serious loop, I only managed three—Harlan Ellison’s “A Boy and His Dog,” Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” and William Faulkner’s “Barn Burning.”

I’ve left you with the impression that I don’t read any modern short stories. Not true. I was working my way up to that before I got sick. Since I can’t cram seven more stories into a single post, I’ll do a quick list of stories and collections I recommend.

First, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Master of Horror, Stephen King, but the story I recommend is considered one of his “mainstream” works: “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.” (They shortened the title for the movie.) A marvelous character story and tribute to, well, redemption.

Agatha Christie, in addition to her many (many) novels, also wrote several collections of short stories involving her best-known characters. The ones I recommend revolve around Miss Marple. Though I always found Miss Marple a little grating on the nerves with her false modesty, any of Christie’s short stories with Miss Marple is a gem—the mystery presented, discussed, resolved so succinctly.

Kurt Vonnegut—I miss him every day—has had several collections of short stories as well. Pick any one of them up, and he will transport you—into the past, the future, someone else’s head, his head. You won’t be disappointed by any of them.

Not because he’s a writer friend of mine but because his collection is so evocative, I’ll include Cliff Garstang’s In an Uncharted Country. (I mention him after Vonnegut because he might not like being so close to King. ;-D ) This is a collection of linked short stories about people and life in a fictional town in the Shenandoah Valley. Cliff links the stories in interesting and provocative ways, and there’s not a disappointment in the bunch.

If you think Vladimir V. Nabokov and your next thought is only, Lolita, think again. He has a large collection of short stories (The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov) that will horrify, intrigue, sicken, delight, and amaze you. You begin to understand how seeing your father murdered in front of you creates an incredible writer.

Ray Bradbury’s “Beggar on the Dublin Bridge” has a hint of the fantasy Bradbury is famous for, but, mainly, it reminds you that opportunities lost can’t be recovered.

Be patient. I’m getting to the women in just a moment.

A literary e-magazine I subscribe to on my Kindle is One Story. Aptly named, it publishes a single story every three weeks. All the ones I’ve read have been excellent and by up and coming writers (which gives me hope I’ll be one some day), but “Filament” by K. L. Cook is a stand-out. If you don’t have or want a Kindle, you can purchase the stories individually as they’re published on the web site (click on the link).

So I don’t let my feminist sisters and brothers down, here are some stories by women writers I’d like to highlight. A lot of these are classics as well, and it’s not that I don’t like modern short stories. A lot of them just don’t give me the “kick in the gut” the “oldies but goodies” do. Oh, they are perfectly structured and punctuated, grammatically flawless, but many are so faultless, they move me only intellectually, not emotionally.

Sarah Orne Jewett – “A White Heron”

Willa Cather – “Paul’s Case”

Edith Wharton – “The Mission of Jane”

Edna Ferber – “The Afternoon of a Faun”

Dorothy Parker – “Big Blonde”

Eudora Welty – “Death of a Traveling Salesman”

Flannery O’Conner – “A Good Man is Hard to Find”

Joyce Carol Oates – “Where are You Going, Where Have You Been?”

Like Bradbury’s “Beggar on the Dublin Bridge,” there are a lot of missed opportunities here—darn that “three-week” cold—but there’s always next year.