Aug 3 2017 2:30pm

Start with Setting: A Focus on Time and Place

A lot of choices have to be made when a story is under construction—what to put in and what to leave out, what to emphasize and what to touch lightly. Tradeoffs are inevitable, and it can be a complex calculus to get things right.

Once I got serious about writing Dark River Rising, setting was one of the elements that I was determined to emphasize. Rare is the character who changes her world in a significant way in the space of a single story—sure, it happens, but not often. Mostly, it’s the other way around. Mostly, it’s the place and time that shape and influence the behavior of the characters, which in turn determines the plot. I think, for this reason, I’m drawn to and inspired by writers whose stories have a strong, unmistakable sense of place—a sense of place so real and so correct that the tales they tell could not properly unfold elsewhere. Hence, my decision to focus so tightly on the setting.

To get this right, an author needs a fairly intimate understanding of the social, cultural, and geographic elements of a place and how they affect their characters as individuals and in relationships. But knowing what needs to be done is not the same as knowing how to do it. As a neophyte novelist, the prospect of getting this wrong worried me.

A bit of homespun wisdom from my childhood smoothed the way for me, however. My father once told me that the best way to learn how to do something was to find someone who was already doing it well, follow them around and watch what they do, and then do what they do. The decades I spent reading crime fiction—other fiction as well, but a lot of crime fiction—and the enormous amount of time I’ve spent under the spell of certain writers is my equivalent of following and watching. One thing all the writers I admire the most have in common is their ability to render their settings in startling visual clarity and with great verbal economy.

One of my favorites, in this regard, is Karin Slaughter. She has written two overlapping series of books set in Georgia—the Will Trent series and the Grant County books. The series are set in urban and rural Georgia in the midst of complex social, familial, and professional relationships that drive her intricate, fast-moving plots. Her characters and their choices and actions feel like absolutely authentic products of their time and place. This makes the epic violence and the deep, recurrent fear factor in her books so real and so impossible to look away from. Clearly, this is a skill worth learning.

Slightly outside the realm of crime fiction, a writer whose books are a masterclass in setting is David Furst, the author of a number of highly atmospheric World War II-era espionage novels set in Europe. Furst’s research is impeccable but unobtrusive, and he manages to weave together the geographic, political, social, and military threads of his setting in the most cunning and realistic ways.

Closer to home and back in the world of crime fiction, Carl Hiaasen and the late John D. MacDonald are well-known for characters that are, in every sense, called into being by the time and place in which the stories are set. No other time and no other place could have produced these characters, and when they occasionally find themselves outside their home territories, the reader instantly sees them as fish out of water.

In one way, the stories of MacDonald and Hiaasen are very different because MacDonald wrote dark tales while Carl Hiaasen’s crime fiction has a much more smart-alecky, satirical feel to it. But both are masters of setting. If you want to know what Florida was like in the '50s and '60s, read John D’s Travis McGee novels. If you want to know what Florida is like now, read Hiaasen’s books.

Another writer of stories set in the South—again outside the crime fiction genre—who had a deep influence on me in terms of showcasing the importance of setting is Rebecca Wells. She is the author of, among others, Little Altars Everywhere and Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. Her first three novels are set primarily a fictional town in central Louisiana, an area I’m very familiar with because I grew up there. In fact, she and I grew up in the same small town. So, when I say that she captured that time and that place with pitch-perfect accuracy and revealed it with exquisite artistry, believe me, I know. And while she is justifiably famous for her fabulous and very colorful characters, if they were separated from their setting, I think we might not see them as clearly.

I had read and reread all of these authors (and others) well before I ever picked up the pencil to begin work on my own book, and in every case, it was for the same reason—the authenticity of the experience I got when reading. From the opening passages, these writers pull you into their world, and even if you’ve never visited the places they write about, you quickly develop a sense that you really are there. There’s just too much nuance in the behavior of their characters, too sharp an eye and ear for the physical details and the sounds of the speech and music, and too keen a portrayal of the effects of the politics and social mores on the characters for the reader to feel any other way. You’re really left with no other option than to see it and hear it and feel it exactly the way the writer wants you to.

For me, this is the whole purpose of reading and the Holy Grail of aspirations as a writer. When the little black marks on the page cause the magic machinery in your head to transport you to the precise time and place the author intends, you know you’ve tapped into something good. And for me, that magic depends on getting the setting—the most fundamental aspect of the story—exactly right.

That said, I think that sometimes setting is given short shrift because it’s not the main action. Our eyes, even our minds' eyes, are just naturally drawn by movement down at the front of the stage, while the setting often seems defaulted to the background.

I’m reminded of a story about James Brown, the singer. So crucial was the rhythm to the whole experience he wanted to create, it’s said that he would tell every member of his band that no matter what instrument they believed they were playing, they were playing a drum.

And it wasn’t this way just for the Godfather of Soul. Paul Simon begins the songwriting process by coming up with the rhythm, and Led Zeppelin quit playing as a band when their drummer, John Bonham, died.

Nevertheless, like the setting in a novel, the drummer is always situated at the back of the stage, and the drum track is often deep in the mix. But without the rhythmic context provided by the drums in a piece of music or by setting in a novel or short story, the experience is only partly there, the potential only somewhat realized. After all, we may sing along to the melody, but we dance to the rhythm.


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Roger Johns is a former corporate lawyer and college professor with law degrees from Louisiana State University and Boston University. He was born and raised in Louisiana, though he and his wife now live in Georgia. Dark River Rising is his first novel.

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