Monday, March 05, 2007

Check out the Scenery

When I sit down and crack open a new novel, one of the first things I want to know is where the story takes place. It's why I love To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and Angry Housewives Eating Bon-Bons. They open by showing me the hot Louisiana bayou or the sub-freezing climate of northern Minnesota, or the dusty streets of Maycomb, Georgia. Once the characters come onto the scene I already have a pretty good idea of what kind of characters they will be.

Where we come from shapes us. Where our characters come from shapes them. But that's only true if the writer understands that place is a character and should be written as one.

Writers use various tools to construct, or create if you will, a character. We use index cards and checklists so we can keep up with whose eyes are green and whose hair is red. We don't want the blond at the bar to have been a redhead two chapters ago. That wouldn't do at all. But when it comes to place we novice writers tend to just tell our readers the novel takes place in Nashville, or Memphis, or Nevada and leave it at that. We do a fair job of showing our readers the interior of our setting, but we fail much of the time to give them a taste of our exterior setting. And, in my humble opinion, that's a big mistake.

I tend to write what I know, as most of us do. I know the western part of Kentucky pretty well, having lived here more than 25 years, so it is almost always the location of my stories. Hopefully my work will reach people who have never seen the state so I want to show them our pretty green, rolling hills. Tobacco barns full of hanging red -gold leaves, smoke seeping out of every crack in the wood. The early morning fog that kisses the hilltops and the verdant green forests full of life. I want to show them the beauty that shapes my not yet introduced character.

But I also need to show the poverty here. I want to show them hungry children living in un-kept shacks whose momma bore them at sixteen. I want to show them fifty year old men, unskilled laborers whose jobs have been taken by immigrants because they work for less money. My reader needs to smell the stale, dead air of a Kentucky coal mine.

Now I will introduce my character and when I do, you will know that what shaped her was growing up surrounded by beauty that she could not appreciate because she was un-learned, poverty stricken and beaten down by a life filled with babies she couldn't feed and books she couldn't read.

Keep in mind when you write that location is as important to your story as your main characters. Show me the heart and soul of your location and you show me the heart and soul of your characters.


Snow said...

Thank you, Gwanny for helping me with what I've always had a troblem.

I haven't been out ot Philadelphia and New York, So when I want to discribe for example a place like Denver I have to rely on others input to get a clear picture.

Nearly half of everyone I know has already lived in or visitied Philadelphia and New York.

With this blog, I have lots to think about for my new story now. The sad thing is I don't have any idea yet how I'm going to be able to give a good discription of our road trip. :-(

Thanks again for a great blog.

Laura said...


**But that's only true if the writer understands that place is a character and should be written as one.**

So true.

Writers who make their locations come alive draw me into their story. I can *be* there in the thick of things.

Now to incorporate it into my own writings.

Thanks for the great post


Cheryl said...

You are so right Gwanny, but even knowing it did not help me do it in my first novel. Because I write mostly articles I think of the bare bone essentials to keep the word count down. And since I read mostly nonfiction I also don't get a lot of great descriptions sticking out at me from other writers.

When I sit down to edit the novel (again and again and again) I have to remember that while I know the New England city where the Lassiter sisters grew up, my readers don't. I need to fill in these details for them so they get a better sense of the surroundings that made these characters who they are.

Thanks for the reminder. [Cheryl smacks head against the wall two times to knock this fact into her tiny brain.]

Jean said...

How true about places shaping characters. For example, a sheriff in my little hick town is going to be a lot different than one in a big city. The setting shapes them in different ways.

I so love all the great info and reminders from this blog.


Sharon said...

Another great blog, Sherry. You are right, setting description is important. This is one reason I enjoy Anne Rice novels so much. She gives such great descriptions of the places that you feel like you're inside the scene with the character, literally seeing, smelling, feeling what they do, no matter how beautiful----or creepy. :) Now if I can learn how to do that as well. ;) Sharon