Sunday, March 20, 2005

Setting the Scene

We all know setting is important. It's that area where the characters live and breathe, that special place where the action occurs. It's sometimes vastly important to the story, and other times a quick sketch of a backdrop. In the right hands and in the right story setting can transform from a simple location into a profound echo of the metaphors and themes of the story.

It doesn't happen very often, but it's always very strange to me when I read a novel or story set within a location I know pretty well. The novel I'm reading now, Tumbling After, takes place in Rehobeth Beach, Delaware. It's about three hours from where I live now, and I spent many a good summer there as a kid. At least so far, author Paul Witcover's vison/memory is more general than mine. Aside from quick mentions of route 1, it could really be Anybeach, U.S.A. I'm hoping eventually the characters will drift down to the boardwalk and pass Rehoboth oddities like Dolly's Candy, Gershman's clothes, or even a kitsch-infected mini-golf place. But so far its all waves and sand between the toes, and nothing really distinguishing. There's a lot of local color to the place, and not using seems like a waste. Perhaps it wouldn't mean a thing to a reader who's never visited Rehobeth, but to someone who has it comes off a touch pallid.

But at least Witcover hasn't written anything out and out wrong.

A few years ago I read Children of the Night by Dan Simmons. Part of the novel is set in Alexandria, Virginia and he describes it as a sleepy, southern farm town south of Washington, D.C. Now that description may have fit Alexandria of the 1960's, and that may very well be the last time Simmons made it there. But the novel was set in the 1990's, and many of the details were just laughable. It's been a long, long time since the homes in Alexandria had cows in the front yard. I'm all for it, though, if the city wants to bring them back.

This little entry is nothing against Witcover or Simmons (I actually like Simmons quite a bit). Just a little lesson on watching those little details that can trip up the reader. If it's been awhile, you just might want to visit that place you're writing about.



LadyLitBlitzin said...

Interesting. I will say I'm not so sure I'm great at setting scenes. So much of my writing might very well be very inverted... I'm not sure I've ever been one for the deft and accurate descriptions.

That's hilarious about that book describing Alexandria, Va. as a sleepy farm town. Old Town? There are a lot of great descriptions but one of them definitely wouldn't be cow town. And of course, west Alexandria, where I live... again, absolutely nothing sleepy or farm-y about it.

Hebdomeros said...

Not saying I'm a master at it, but I do aim to really lay out the physical space of the story. Where things are, the colors, where the light is coming from (ie setting sun, a dim lighbulb, moonlight streaming through a stained glass window). But then I often think of scenes in terms of comic-book style panels.