Writing Wednesday – Setting

On Wednesdays, we write.

Every now and then a some unsuspecting soul will ask me, “So, how’s your writing?” This question means so much to me, especially when it is asked in a tone similar to that unassuming time filler, “How’s work?” It means that my venture into the crazy world of daytime head-scratcher and sweatpants-wearer is respected enough to warrant the casual nod to the fact that I do something with my time. Of course, me being me, I often smile, take a deep breath and launch a full-scale assault on the poor individual, bursting with joy that someone asked the question. How did they know that so much of my mind is occupied by the answer to that question? My poor friends.

So, in an effort to give my friends their peace, I started a blog. And here we are, and I get to talk about writing and my love of the craft as much as I want in this little corner on the internet. Wednesday is the lucky day dedicated to writing, because it starts with W, and if I am anything, I am full of that kind of stunning logic. This particular Wednesday is going to be about Setting, because it is something I am currently wrestling with (and because it was one of the first ideas that sparked my interest after googling “writing craft” – so much logic over here).

So, WTF Setting

Obviously the goal of Setting is to establish the location of the story and the time frame during which it occurs. Most of us learned that in grade school. However, I never felt that it was a particularly interesting observation to notice that My Side of the Mountain took place on a mountain. This kind of exercise always made Setting feel like a hyper-conscious element of writing, rather than an organic element in story-telling. If only I had been encouraged to move one step beyond drawing a picture of  white-peaked triangle and instead had a conversation about what it means to be on mountain, surrounded by wilderness.

So now here I am wondering why in the world I based my first love story in Boston starting on New Year’s Eve. Barring the obvious romance in a harsh Boston “-ar,” I can’t say much when it comes to the conscious choice. It was the quiet nature of Winter that gave itself to a tone of self-reflection and initial isolation. It is a story about a fresh start and newness but with a little too much cynicism for the twitterpaited flutter that comes with Spring. New Year’s seems perfect for a will they/won’t they scenario. My main character is crisp, fresh, rosie-cheeked. She is an explorer in a new realm and has to be seen as fearless for all her flaws. Somehow the fearlessness that occurs in Winter feels different than in Summer.

And how did Boston become the place (aside from the fact that all I really want in life is the opportuntiy to meet Mark Wahlberg when he plays a charater I wrote)? It is a story that makes comraderie and community integral to the success of the leading lady. I like the unassuming nature and the rush of a larger city (it suits the personality of a young person starting to find her way) but it needed to be balanced by a clear feeling of neighbors helping neighbors, the kind that I have found in the Bostonians that I’ve been lucky enough to meet.

These explanations present Setting as a tonal committment (the bigger, broader-shouldered brother of the more sensitive pathetic fallacy). But then there are also the obvious ways that Setting leads the plot. For instance, when four kids walk through a wardrobe into a fantasy world, we suddenly know that whimsy, splendor, and magic are going to play a strong role in the rest of the story. I can’t help but wonder if this kind of Setting-based plot element is indicative of how the story was constructed. Was the book full of magic before the wardrobe revealed it to be so?

And similarly, will lovelorn characters always require a gray sky under which they can suffer? Or could a blue one do just as well to harass them toward worsening malaise? Could The Scarlet Letter have taken place in the Carribean? Could Wuthering Heights have wuthered anywhere but on the moors? This feels like a pretty unholy line of questioning.

So maybe the role of Setting in relation to plot differs based on how it is used to drive the story (more on that next time), but regardless of mechanism its tonal influence remains true.

Yes, the book was about the mountain, but it was also about the feeling of the mountain.

“See that falcon? Hear those white-throated sparrows? Smell that skunk? Well, the falcon takes the sky, the white-throated sparrow takes the low bushes, the skunk takes the earth…I take the woods.”

Jean Craighead George, My Side of the Mountain

P.S. – I realize this wasn’t actually published on Wednesday, but I first wrote it on Wednesday, so it counts, right? It counts.

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