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A Sense of Place

April 19, 2012
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This is a repost from my other blog, Specnology.

I wrote this post for two reasons. I went home last week*, and I’ve been reading. Home’s kind of a fluid concept, you see. It’s my apartment, my neighbourhood, my city, my home region, and my parents’ house, which is what I mean in this case. My family’s moved six times that I remember, though the last two houses I haven’t lived in as much as visited occasionally. I’m most strongly bonded to the Cariboo, because that’s where I spent the greater part of my childhood. It’s cattle country, forest country, gold rush country, small-town Canada. I could wax poetic, but I won’t unless I’m begged to in the comments. Point is, when I’m asked where I’m from, I don’t say “Vancouver” and I don’t say “Keremeos“, I say “Williams Lake” because that’s where I graduated from, and when I’m seized with homesickness or want to show off my roots to my friends, I pull up pictures of grasslands, snow, fir and spruce forests, and rodeos.

How does this tie into reading? “Home” is a setting. It’s important to every character. And the location they’re in now is also important, but in a slightly different way. “Home” shapes a person, defines their values and outlook and attitudes. The current setting may do the same, especially if it doubles as “home”, but it provides a lot more too—dangers, hangouts, classes, ambience. You know, those background things that contribute to the story.

I could veer off now and talk about how where a character’s from shapes who they are and how they’ll approach the current setting and situation, but that’s a big and messy topic. Maybe I’ll tackle it later, maybe I won’t. Instead, I want to talk about the three degrees of setting that I’ve noticed: background, descriptive, and realized.

Background setting is the sort you barely notice. Sometimes it’s a sign that a writer isn’t trying or is just starting out. Sometimes it’s not something that’s necessary to the scene/chapter/book. For instance, “I turned left into an alley” may not need a lot of description because most people have seen an alley before. Same with “We landed at JFK, found our luggage, and hailed a taxi” and “My jerk of an ex was at the laundromat when I got there.” The crowds at the airport and the color of the walls would slow the transition down, and the smell of soap may not even register to someone focussed on another person.

Setting becomes a kind of shorthand in those instances, and that’s cool. But when a writer says, “This book is set in New York” but doesn’t give any sort of local flavor, doesn’t recognize that the city has a culture (or twenty), that’s also background setting. At a story level, merely giving a nod to setting isn’t good. Readers can’t picture everything, and if a setting just gets lip service, there’s a good chance the writer didn’t research—which means there’ll be mistakes. Imagine a NYC where everyone drives everywhere, has the same accent, has the same fashion sense, is middle-class, and can afford a large apartment… Yeah.

Descriptive setting is one level above that, and is, at least in the sorts of books I read, the most common. There’s a sentence or two about every location, and information about the larger setting (city, country, era) worked in in small chunks. I get a sense that the writer’s done the research, and I have enough info to picture a scene in my head. I also get character information out of the descriptions—how someone decorates their apartment or describes a setting tells volumes.

On the scene level, we’re talking about things like “The kitchen was bright and sunny. Two green enamel pots sat on the wood-burning stove, and a pie was cooling on the lace-trimmed window ledge.” and “Rain poured down on the city of Ithyra, funneling off the photovoltaic roofs and forcing the cars to ground level. The climate controller was unaccountably offline and nobody knew why.” These kinds of descriptions set the mood for the scene, and prime readers for what’s coming. You wouldn’t expect the kitchen scene to include ninjas or gun battles, and you wouldn’t expect a heartwarming story in the Intrepid British Youngster vein to take place in Ithyra.**

On a book level, all those smaller descriptions add up to say, “This book is set in Place and Time and the writer knows what they’re doing. They’ve even done research and stuff. Can’t you picture this place?” but that’s about as far as they go. Books where descriptive setting is the upper limit are great fun. They’re interesting and educational. You can’t entirely drop the plot into a different setting and have it work. But at the same time, descriptive setting books don’t transport me.

Realized setting transports me. It’s one of those “I know it when I see it” things, unfortunately, but basically, all the descriptive setting stuff blends with the story and the characters and the dialogue to give the reader a sense of actually being in Place and Time. It’s inconceivable that the story could be anywhere else. It takes an incredible amount of work to pull off, but it’s so very, very worth it. I’m talking about books like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, Dickens, Hardy, Thackeray, and Tolkien (to name some well-known examples), which leave me in a puddle of writerly goo gibbering about wanting to write like that when I grow up. And I do want to, really, that would be fantastic—but I’m not there yet, so I’m forgoing examples. To give some would probably mean writing an entire book anyway, due to the nature to realized settings, and … yeah, working on that. Someday.

Note that I’m not talking only about fiction, though that’s where setting’s most obvious. I’ve read memoirs and event histories where descriptive setting is all that’s needed, and I’ve read memoirs and event histories where I’m in that place while the action is happening. It’s pretty cool, getting a sense of what it was like living there and then. And I’ve also read non-fiction that’s about facts and arguments rather than stories (a socioeconomic book comes to mind), and setting doesn’t factor into those much at all. It all depends on subject matter and context—but if you’re telling a story and you’re not doing anything with setting, you should get on that. It’s important.

* Hence the lack of posts, if anyone was wondering.

** Though more power to you if you pull that off. Intrepid Youngster sci-fi would rock.

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