Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Why in the World it Matters

I'm on holiday, living it up in Alberta my old stomping grounds.

Last weekend we celebrated my parent's 60th wedding anniversary (60 years without a restraining order) in a town called Stettler, Alberta, where my folks live.
I lived in Stettler for three years before moving to Saskatoon almost 6 years ago. I know the place, know many of the people. Or I thought so.

My sisters and I had worked for months on the anniversary party and had intended it to be an open house tea, a come-and-go afternoon. It started at one o'clock. At three minutes past one the hall was filled. People jammed in, filled plates with sandwiches, fruit, cheese, vegetables, pastries, and pickles, filled cups with coffee and tea and punch. Our come-and-go had turned to a come-and-stay.

No one left until four o'clock--the hour we had given on the invitation to end the celebration.

I happily pointed this out to someone I had known when I lived in Stettler.

"That's small town, folk," he said. "You've been in the city too long, Bonnie."


Good point.

I'd planned the party from Saskatoon.

We lived the party in Stettler.

When I was in Saskatoon, it seemed important that people RSVPed. I needed to know numbers so I could plan the food, how many tables to set up, how many chair covers we'd need.
When I arrived in Stettler, I walked downtown and ran in to old friends who I would casually invite to the party.

"Just come. There's plenty of room. Lots of food."
What had mattered so much in the city, mattered nothing when I got to town.

Setting is everything.

Setting--a part of Story World--dictates so much in story. It is a character, and it moves characters around the story by its organic pulse. It is geography, buildings, technology, and environment, but it is also the below the surface stuff of character, social classes and how they work, mythology (some places are spooky, some are tragic, others bright, nearly divine), speech, and habit.

Setting means the ghosts of the place's past walk the streets and peek in the windows of the residents' homes.

Setting dictates whether a character hung up on the details of an anniversary party is dedicated, or a show off. Whether a character's uncanny ability to show up whenever there's a crisis makes her an angel or a devil.

In all truth, I've reached the end of my depth of insight today. Being on holiday has turned my poor brain to mush. Happy mush, but still mush.

So, you tell me what you have noticed about the power of setting, either in your writing or your reading.


BK said...

I have no comments with regard to reading and writing, but on life in small town vs. city. I grew up in a town in Maryland that didn't even have 100 people. As I graduated high school, I moved to progressively larger and larger places. Not because I wanted to move to the big city, but because real life settings were so important to me (ie. I'm hard-wired to move toward the mountains and Maryland is as flat as you can get).

First, to western North Carolina, home of the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains, then to Arizona, the place I was destined to be.

But in doing so, I moved from a place of less than 100 people to a location where I swear at least 6 trillion people live just in my zip code alone.

I can't shake the feeling that city living warps your brain. Maybe it's all in my head. But there's a greater realness to small town life, whereas city life--so much of it seems so very superficial and disconnected.

At least from this life observor's standpoint.

Samantha Bennett said...

Love this! I'm actually in the Setting chapter of John Truby so this post was super timely. I especially liked this line "Setting means the ghosts of the place's past walk the streets..."

Anonymous said...

A good lesson in contrasts today, Bonnie, and a good reminder that the "rules" of one locale don't necessarily apply in another. That makes the decision of setting for a story all the more important. Congratulations to your parents. No restraining orders? Ever? Really? Lovely.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Happy mush! My brain is full of it too. :-)

I wish I had your depth of insight even with a brain full of happy mush.

I also loved that line about the ghosts of the past. Beautiful.

What have I noticed?... setting is everything. I love the novels where setting is so integral that the story couldn't exist without it. The old-time circus in "Water for Elephants." War-torn Afghanistan in "The Kite Runner". The okasa in "Memoirs of a Geisha." Those stories were so rich because they grew out of the unique settings.

Another reason I'm looking forward to reading Sharon's book. :-)

Susie Finkbeiner said...

How did I forget what day it was? I completely missed Wednesday!

Ah well. Better late...

In my currently WIP, I've noticed that setting is the difference between a character donning a 3 piece suit and a pair of overalls.

Very important.

That's all my mush brain has.