Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Cheat of Setting

Ah, New York City. Statue of Liberty, Ground Zero, the smell of exhaust and incessant blare of horns honking, more taxis in a row than floors in the Empire State Building.

Can you see it? Does it bring any visual images to your mind?

How about this?

…the gleaming facades of new high rises and business developments gave way to older, established buildings that were gradually getting facelifts. The area was fondly called Old Town by the locals...

or this?

Hilly streets wove past buildings scattered along the roadside. This part of the city was old, the houses and shops plain. The real business of commerce was done in the area where Farraday worked, the other side of the city from this, the original town. This street had a Mom & Pop Convenience Store, a local grocer instead of large chain stores and a no-name hardware store in desperate need of a repairman’s attention. Somehow, this neighborhood had eluded the development overtaking other areas. Branches dangled over the sidewalks; already leaves were starting to collect on the pavement, the red, orange and yellow hues slowly claiming dominance. In the stretches between the buildings bushes pressed against the road. While other cities were defined by steel, cement and man-made structures, this area was distinctly green and ungoverned.

Lara liked driving along these roads. The lush foliage and quiet streets seemed more human than the concrete jungle expanding to the west.

One of the things I’ve looked at, long and hard, is the setting in books and I’ve come to a conclusion. A lot of books skim the setting.

The reason it concerns me is that I’ve started to realize that with a lot of books, whether or not the reader feels there’s a sense of place has more to do with what the reader brings to the table than what the author puts into the book. Face it. Anyone can mention New York, the Statue of Liberty and endless streams of vehicles honking and we start conjuring up mental pictures, gleaned from Law & Order and NYPD Blue repeats. The overwhelming majority of people know a fair bit about NYC and so it isn’t hard for a writer to insert a few token location names and the reader ends up with a strong visual image.

I think it’s when the author writes about a place that’s less known that they’re more likely to get criticized for not giving the book a sense of place.

I’ve been thinking about this for months. The more you write, the more you start reading differently. You analyze the books you read, even if only on a subconscious level, then you find yourself at your desk later, thinking about it.

I think that the authors who do setting exceptionally well are the ones who’ve taken a place they know and love and really made it a character in the books. The automatic one that jumps to mind? Laura Lippman’s Tess Monaghan books. Well, all of Laura Lippman’s books. I love Baltimore, and a big part of the reason I’ve developed such an interest in that city is because Laura’s love for the city translates through in her work. The city is more than the backdrop, more than a few choice locations and labels inserted to give the books a setting. It lives and breathes and has a life and character of its own.

The other person I consider to be a master of setting is Ian Rankin. (Yeah, yeah, just shush.) Scotland has always had an enormous appeal to me in general, and I fell in love with Edinburgh with the first book. I have never been to Baltimore, but I have been to Edinburgh twice now, and last summer I was freaking people out when I went. Normally I’m pretty obsessive compulsive, and I like to know my itinerary and have my route mapped out. Like I said to Kevin this morning, “I don’t like driving anywhere if I don’t know where I’m going.” (Makes it hard to go new places.) But I stepped off the train at Waverly, had the name of the hotel and knew I’d figure it out when I got there. By the time my travel companion met me at the hotel I had the bus system figured out for getting to and from downtown, with multiple options. I feel at ease in that city, and a big part of the reason is because of how much I’ve gleaned about it in the Rebus books. Kevin and I always say some day, when we can take a month, we’ll go just spend time in Edinburgh.

Sometimes, I wish authors would have the balls to forego the standard advice and instead set their books in lesser known places, but places they love. I just read Alain Mabanckou’s African Psycho, which has its own sense of place, with the story taking place primarily in He-Who-Drinks-Water-Is-An-Idiot. In a story that was dark and disturbing on so many levels the wondrous African town names cracked me up. I’ve always been a huge fan of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I just got Peter Temple’s The Distant Shore, and I’m looking forward to Toni McGee Causey’s Bobbie Faye’s Very (very very very) Bad Day, which is set in Louisiana. Why? Because it’s someplace different. I’m tired of the same-old, same-old. Tired of books and TV shows set in NYC and LA. I want to recapture that feeling I had, reading my first Rebus book, that I could close my eyes and see this place, that it felt so familiar to me just from reading the book that I knew it. I got that sense when I read Bill Cameron’s Lost Dog and when I read Anne Frasier’s Pale Immortal. It was so refreshing to read about new places.

The setting for Suspicious Circumstances was one thing I struggled with. I was unhappy about the pressure to move the book to a US setting. One thing I realized was that if I tried to represent an actual place I hadn’t been to I would definitely get it wrong, so I followed the Lake Wobegon approach, and fictionalized a town, referenced it off real places but tried to make it vague enough that nobody could put a finger on a map and say it was a substitute for any actual real place.

Despite my google searches, my attempts to get professional contacts in the area and input from a friend familiar with the area (the one who recommended the setting to me for that book) I made a technical mistake. I just heard about it Monday. I’m not surprised, but this strengthened an already strong resolve within me:

I want to set my work in a place that lives and breathes for me.

So… The current book I’ve been working on is titled What Burns Within. And it’s set in the Greater Vancouver Area (GVA), specifically the Tri-Cities: Port Moody, Coquitlam and Port Coquitlam. Anybody heard of Port Coquitlam? Maybe something about a pig farmer?

That isn’t why I picked that setting. I picked this setting because I used to live at, essentially, the crossroads, where New Westminster, Burnaby and Coquitlam intersect. From my balcony I could see the Fraser River and into Coquitlam. We spent the majority of our time in Coquitlam and Port Moody. Oh, how we loved to walk at Rocky Point, even at risk of encountering bears, cougars and coyotes. Coquitlam Centre was our favourite mall, hands down. They have a great sandwich shop in the food court. Although I’m not supposed to eat sandwiches I couldn’t resist the place.

(Sunset off our balcony when we lived in New Westminster - this is Twitch's place in Fucked Again. And yeah, it was suitably sleazy for him...)

(Above two photos both taken at Rocky Point park, in Port Moody. The park wraps around the Burrard Inlet.)

My close friends used to live in the same building as us, then moved to Port Moody. Now they’re in Port Coquitlam. This is 100% where I hang out when I visit the lower mainland, and if Kevin had a transfer back there… well, I love Alberta, but I love BC differently. I spent more than six years living in BC, both on Vancouver Island and in the GVA, and I love going back there. It’s a place that has it’s own pulse.

Plus, with my friend Steve being on the New Westminster Fire Department, I hear all kinds of stories. Steve’s wife, Alison, is a nurse, so between the two of them they can keep me suitably disgusted and put me off my dinner any night of the week, although since I started writing crime fiction I’ve been able to hold my own a bit better. When we’d hang out I always felt ganged up on, because Kevin was in the military, he’s a qualified social worker and worked at a mental hospital, and now with the fire department he’s seen his share of wild stuff.

But I digress. I just have so much passion for the GVA. The longer I live here, the more I miss BC.

Someone asked me recently if I would ever set a book here. Maybe. Probably not until I move away, though. I think the distance gives you perspective. In one respect, I’m just like Cornelia Read’s protagonist from her Edgar nominated debut: “There are people who can be happy anywhere. I am not one of them.”

But sometimes, for just a few hours I can be happy in a new place in a book.


Vincent said...

I think a good setting has a number of requirements:

1) It should permeate the story. An obvious (but good) example would be MacBride's Cold Granite, where the characters can never get away from the Aberdeen rain. Relegating the setting to an opening paragraph of description may paint a suitably evocative picture, but it's a picture that's then left hanging on the wall.

2) Clich├ęd backdrops - like your New York description - conjure up postcards, rather than places. Of course, that can work if it's subverted. Take the reader away from Ground Zero, over to that steak house, into the kitchens, out the back door, up a fire escape into an apartment five flights up where a thirty-five stone guy lives, unable to go outside, but constantly reminded of the teeming city he's separated from by the noises coming through his window.

3) How the setting is described can make a world of difference. An arctic wasteland can be described as just that, an arctic wasteland. Or it could be an endless expanse of white, void of anything save natural hostility. Or, to a character, it could be a pristine, white wonderland, unsullied by the hand of man, the only refuge from a civilisation intent on driving him slowly mad.

Of course, I get the feeling that the quality of the setting is largely reliant on that great unknown: The reader. Weave a masterly tapestry of adjectives and metaphors for a reader with no imagination and the setting may yet fall flat, whereas a relatively humdrum description may contain a single word or phrase that reminds the reader of a place they knew as a kid, triggering a flood of memories and making the place described come alive in a way the writer could have only dreamt of.

Evil Kev said...

The hard thing about setting is that if it is real, then people will endlessly examine the book to compare it to their memories of the place.

But I think it is so much easier if it is real. I remember looking off our balcony at hundreds of sunsets in every kind of weather possible. I recall one stretch of two weeks of rain everyday, of how depressingly drab and wet everything was but that all the grass and trees were so green. The East Hastings area of Vancouver with its high crime and general hopelessness, yet it is in the shadow of some of the most expensive and affluent areas of the city.

It is hard to fictionalize that without lossing its spirit.

But as far as New York and LA go, I would suggest to anyone writing a new book to avoid that setting. If no one wrote about either of them for a couple of years, the first book with that setting could feel fresh instead of like its just treading the same old tired ground.

sandra seamans said...

I love an author who can give me a feel for a place. James Lee Burke gives me the tastes and smells of Louisiana. JA Jance makes me feel the emptiness of the desert the strength of the mountains. What bugs me about some authors who place their novels in a city is their determination to take me on every road in that city, every traffic jam and every short cut. I hate driving and to be forced to drive through a place I don't know and will never visit drives me crazy and I find myself skimming over those parts. Setting is such a subtle thing for me. I don't want the buildings and streets. I want a sense of the people who live there, what they eat, what they feel. Maybe it's from living in the country and waking every morning to the sun rising over the moutain, seeing the sky change from dull grey to rosey pink and gold, then pure sky blue while I sip my morning coffee. Watching the deer digging for grass under the snow. Seeing a flock of wild turkeys strutting in a meadow. That's what setting is for me, something that touches all my senses in some small way.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Vincent, great points. And to some degree how the setting carries over will vary reader to reader, but like you said, if you take people away from the postcard image it will make a huge difference.

evilkev, there's no chance people will go a few years without writing about NY or LA. But it's a distinct possibility that I might make a deliberate point of reading about different places for a few years.

Sandra, I completely agree with you. I don't mind a generic description once or twice as someone's moving through the city, a comment on the scenery, but when people start getting into an endless list of road signs, where they turned... unless the traffic and knowing an alternate route are paramount to the story, when people start doing the 'he turned left on Washington Ave and went three blocks and turned right on Lincoln St" thing, I'll skim ahead and see if there's a bunch of that and just skip it. I used to try to read everything, but reading stuff like that gives me a headache.

Street names only matter to me if they have a profound significance. Like evil kev said about East Hastings. To use that in a story you'd have to explain it, as he did. But just the name East Hastings conjurs up vivid images for me - again, because I already know it. Pretty well everyone in Vancouver would know East Hastings. There aren't that many streets that would carry that level of significance though.

Steve Allan said...

Well, setting can be a help or it can be a hindrance, depending on how you use it. I think some people take too much time focusing on setting, taking away from the story. Take Tolkein. The Hobbit and a lot of The Lord of the Rings trilogy reads like a travelogue. I think the best way to do setting, like any description in a story, is in short bursts.

But there is a lot to be said about allowing the reader to bring something to the work. I'm a huge fan (and sometimes practitioner) of minimalism. Suggestions of setting can sometimes work better than spelling it out for readers, especially if a story requires a quick pace.

John McFetridge said...

But the main thing about setting is the character of the place (and the characters in the place). You've got to be honest about it. Ian Rankin's Scotland isn't Tourism Scotland's idea of a way to show the place, but it's undeniably the character of the place. When you really love a place you can see it, warts and all.

I've seen thousands of TV shows and movies set in LA but the thing that surprised me when I visited was how international, how multi-ethnic the place is.

Cities have different histories, some are more transient, people moving in an out, some are older with little movement, some are on the upswing and booming, some are dying - it makes a big difference to their character and that's got to come across (in the fewest words possible).

Sandra Ruttan said...

Steve, I agree about Tolkein. It's the kind of thing where (I think) if it was being published now it would have been edited substantially. And I agree about minimalism. I don't think you have to go overboard. I think you use it where appropriate, where it works. Like anything, it's to enhance the story, not to be a detraction from it.

John, I think you're right about the warts and all, and I think that's where distance and perspective can come in as well. One thing that always fascinated me about Coquitlam, and much of the GVA, was how affluence could rub up against poverty. In Calgary you tend to have your bad neighborhoods and good areas. Everyone know Forest Lawn isn't a great area, while University Heights is older, lush and much more expensive. But in the GVA you'll get it intermixing. Where we lived, two blocks in one direction a guy had his legs broken when he came up short on some debt, and the 7-11 was being robbed routinely. Walk two blocks in the other direction and you're in amidst the beautiful homes. How one thing flowed into another always intrigued me.

Bill, the Wildcat said...

Speaking as a fan and writer of fantasy, I couldn't agree more about Tolkien. His writing style couldn't survive in today's fantasy market (which is ironic when almost every bit of decent fantasy owes a nod to him).

For me, having to write about a place doesn't exist creates a whole host of different issues. Half the challenge is in describing the place without any modern-day references. There's also the challenge of presenting the fantastic elements to the reader. After all, the character exists within the setting and doesn't give these things a second thought. I don't think it's any wonder fantasy loves to use the farm boy/girl turned hero as the main character. It's just easier, because you get to explain everything as the character learns it.

Christa M. Miller said...

Frankly, I struggle with setting more than any other element in my stories. I'm not sure, but I think it has a lot to do with having a somewhat transient childhood. We moved around every 3 years until we finally ended up in NH. As a result, I barely learned much about people/characters, much less setting. Which is probably also why, when I read "A Death in Belmont," I had a hard time re-visualizing the place I'd lived for two years (other than my own block). Also, my last attempt to show a sense of setting in my writing sounded more like Mapquest directions. :P

All that rambling is by way of asking whether moving around a lot is an advantage for some, a disadvantage for others? Is there a good way to turn it around into an advantage? Or are some writers better off focusing on people and allowing the setting to be "anywhere" as long as readers can relate to it?

Trace said...

Gorgeous pics. Have you read any Micheal Slade (pen name for male/female team of writers)? They take place in BC. Excellent stuff.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Trace, no. Michael Slade is a new one on me - I'll have to check them out.

Christa, I have a feeling you could write from the perspective of a transient quite convincingly. Okay, jokes aside, it could be both an advantage and disadvantage. People see places differently. Some people love Toronto. I... am not so fond of the city. My favourite city in Italy is Florence, but for a good friend of mine the favourite city is Venice. There are undeniably things that either connect with us or don't, and if you don't have a sense of the history of a place I think it can change your impressions as well. I mean, I know I went to Edinburgh in July both times, but it was a lot sunnier than I pictured, so even the season of the book could dramatically alter aspects of setting, like weather. Get a bit of snow in Calgary and it's usually not a big thing. Get a bit of snow in Vancouver and the city can shut down.

Christa, I think Ken Bruen does setting wonderfully as well, and it goes to what Steve was saying about suggestions of setting and letting the reader bring it in.

Bill, interesting points on Tolkein. I think it's true of all classics, to some degree. No computers, I guess editing wasn't so easy or desirable and people had more time for reading, so maybe the push to trim just wasn't there.

Vincent said...

As Bill said above, setting becomes a whole different beast when you step into the fantasy genre. One-step removed is the medieval fantasy, where the tropes are at least familiar to most people (castles, horse drawn wagons, etc.), but when it's a completely different world, the line between describing the setting enough for it to make it sense, but not enough for it to get in the way of the story is hard to judge. I've had a science fiction novel on my list of things to write for years, but I'm acutely aware that getting it right depends largely on developing a suitably coherent setting.

anne frasier said...

having passion for a place that is real or imagined is important. you also made a good point about distance. it's hard for me to write about the familiar, but once i no longer live in a place it's much easier. maybe because i remember the important things. the setting for PI was basically my hometown of burlington, iowa. but when i lived in burlington -- BO-RING! :D now i visit and notice the amazing architecture, the way the air feels, and the bleak, darkness that permeates everything.

Daniel Hatadi said...

I wanted to comment on this post days ago, but pesky blogger has been causing me random troubles.

I say follow your passions and everything falls into place. Who wants another book set in NY or LA?

Great post, Sandra, and beautiful photos.