I interrupt our regularly scheduled discussion of Anne Lamott's chapter, "Dialogue" to skip ahead. Such is the power of being the blogger of the day. But this isn't about power. We have a roundtable surprise for our readers on Monday on dialogue. I’m saving my best for that discussion. (Some of us—me!—have a shallow reservoir of knowledge and must siphon cautiously.)
For those of you just dropping by, we've been discussing Anne Lamott's classic writing book, Bird by Bird. Today, we'll be talking about her chapter, "Set Design." Let's say, for discussion purposes only, that you didn't read the chapter. By all means, chime in. We learn so much from what you add.
The very title of this chapter makes me squirm a bit. "Set Design" conjures up backdrops for school plays held in place with two-by-fours. Setting is so much more. In fact, setting should be a character in our stories. Setting moves beyond its generic role as backdrop to become a character when a landscape, an attic hideaway, or even a rabbit warren becomes a vehicle of change for the protagonist and his players.
Didn't you feel the grit of red clay on your face while reading To Kill a Mockingbird? Did you watch Cuba sink into the horizon in The Old Man and the Sea and feel your self-doubt growing? Did you luxuriate in the “moist hungry earth” in the company of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind?
A masterfully built story universe uses the elements of history and culture, geography and climate, and flora and fauna to shape the characters and the stories, and most importantly, to pull the reader irresistibly in.
Let's consider a recent bestseller, Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls. She does a great job of developing her setting as character, a force of change and challenge for the main character. Walls wrote the real-life novel as a telling of her grandmother's life, perhaps as an explanation of how her mother and father came to be such disappointing parents( Read: Glass Castles). Whatever her motive for writing the story, it's a great read, real-life or not.
Walls opens the story in a soddy on the west Texas plains around the turn of the last century. The West is still a very wild place, and Texas, especially, is known for its get 'er done spirit. School is a luxury few can afford, and, quite frankly, educating women seems like a waste of time. Standing apart from that culture and time, Lily Casey Smith, Walls' grandmother, wants to expand her learning and her father agrees, to a point. A get-rich scheme gone sour drains Lily's tuition money. She’s sent home with little hope of returning. She breaks horses with her father until a former teacher suggests she take a teaching position left open due to teacher shortages during the Great War. She is fifteen and she rides a horse 500 miles over twenty-eight days to reach the assignment. Had Walls not created a place with history and culture, Lily would never have had her mettle tested so convincingly.
Lily lives on two ranches during her lifetime, one in Texas and the other in New Mexico. Both are hot and dry, but only Texas has tornadoes. The violence of one storm pushes Lily's family to leave for New Mexico. Geography and climate definitely press and refine Lily. New Mexico is yet another wild place, but different. The sky is wide open but canyons and sandstone walls give respite and adventure. Lily is ruined for city living, although she tries several times to enter the hubbub of urban life. She always ends up in the desert where too little and too much rain cause near ruin, and goodness--read that: water--is captured to sustain life and nearly destroy it. The paradoxical geography and climate of the West shapes Lily into a woman who can sell moonshine from under her son's crib and not wince.
We have to return to the soddy to understand how Lily can stand unblinking at the flora and fauna of the West. Worms, scorpions, and centipedes wriggled through the earthen walls to visit the family. In fact, a rattlesnake drops onto an Easter dinner. Her father pauses from carving the ham to behead the thing. Remember, at 15 she travels alone by horseback across 500 miles of desert. Lily isn't bullied by the cohabitants of her home. By living in such close proximity to all that is wild, she has simply learned to adapt, not romanticizing nor cowering. The flora and fauna of the desert west have made her a force to be reckoned with.
Half Broke Horses was a satisfying read because Walls didn't hang her characters against a generic backdrop. I don't think we should either.
What have you read lately where the author uses place as a character? Is it satisfying for you to read a story where the characters seem suspended in space? Why not? Care to give titles? Do you prefer books where you feel like you've traveled to another place and time? Please share. A reading list can't be too long. How do you develop setting for your novels?