Setting is Everything

I can’t read a book of any kind—thriller, literary fiction, memoir, biography, even history—unless the setting speaks to me. I need to feel, with all my senses, the physical world in which the writer is trying to involve me. Often, that’s what I’m left with years later when I think of the work: not the characters or the plot or the ideas, but the place and the atmosphere the place invokes.

Robert Stone, one of our greatest writers of classy thrillers, described Saigon during the Vietnam War this way in his National Book Award winning novel Dog Soldiers, a landscape of dread and bad omens, all to be fulfilled as the book progresses.

Across the square from the terrasse was the statue of two Vietnamese soldiers in combat stance which, from the positioning of the principal figures, was known as the National Buggery Monument. The National Buggery Monument, as Converse passed it, was surrounded by gray-uniformed National Policemen who were setting up barricades on a line between the statue and the National Assembly building beside it. They were expecting a demonstration. They had been expecting one for weeks.

Like Stone and Graham Greene before him and Conrad before him, I favor exotic, seedy, tropical locations in my own writing. It’s a great foil for noir, hence the tradition, but more importantly, it frees up my imagination. Anything can happen in these locations, at least for me, whereas in an urban, domestic setting, I feel constrained. I want to move away from the civilized to a more elemental place, where you’re faced with very basic issues—“places where you can resolve your needs on an immediate basis without chatting on and on about health food,” as Jim Harrison notably put it.

That’s not to say that urban, domestic settings can’t be used effectively. “For eliciting the menace that lurks in familiar surroundings, there’s no one like Patricia Highsmith,” proclaims Time Magazine. Raymond Chandler famously changed Los Angeles into a noir backdrop that will be remembered long after his books are forgotten. 

You write about what you know, though, and over the years, I’ve actually become most familiar with the exotic locations I favor for settings. I grew up in the Bahamas, worked as a journalist in Bangkok and Saigon during the war, sailed into classic fever ports like Belize City, Bluefields in Nicaragua, and Colon in Panama, and for the last 30 years, I’ve lived off and on in a little town in Baja California, very similar to the one in my new novel, Paraíso—at least back in the eighties, when it was a simple farming and fishing village.

The setting can actually produce the characters. When I first arrived in this village in 1981, I met the character who inspired the book. His nickname among the townspeople was “Felipe Reyes, amigo del pueblo,” from an old radio show about a kind of Mexican Lone Ranger—a hero who rights wrongs and gets rid of the bad guys. Except, it was all a joke: the character was actually a Don Quixote who tilted at windmills, a laughingstock. He desperately kept trying to do good deeds but they always went wrong. 

Imagine, I thought, if this character’s Dulcinea, the virginal object of his noble chivalry, turned out to be one of those lusty gringas of a certain age who  come to Mexico in search of easy sex and louche adventure?

I love old-style nature writing. (As opposed to the new, which frequently bogs down in conservation issues.) The setting is everything, and the writer must really work hard so it can carry the whole book. If he or she does a good job, you end up with a feel for the place that transcends conservation issues and is finally more important. You come to love it. 

My favorite novelists are the ones who try to work that kind of writing into their fiction. For thrillers, John D. MacDonald and Carl Hiaasen come to mind. On the broader stage there are Peter Mathiessen, Jim Harrison, and Tom McGuane. But, the king of them all is John Steinbeck, whose settings are so vivid and well-realized they stay in your mind forever.

I first read Steinbeck’s Cannery Row in high school and was mesmerized by its mythical setting among the sardine canneries of Monterey. The book was published in 1945. When I found myself in college in the bay area in the seventies, I made a pilgrimage. 

I was young and naïve, and I assumed the legendary place he wrote about would still be there for me to experience. Imagine my surprise to find the whole area was now a tourist attraction! Millions of other readers of Steinbeck had had exactly the same idea.

Now that is powerful writing. You’ll notice I don’t name the village in Baja.

The more carefully I construct the setting, the easier it is for my characters to act in it.

 

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Gordon Chaplin is the author of the novel Joyride and several works of nonfiction, including Dark Wind: A Survivor’s Tale of Love and Loss and Full Fathom Five: Ocean Warming and a Father’s Legacy. A former journalist for Newsweek, the Baltimore Sun, and the Washington Post, he has worked on sea conservation with the group Niparaja and since 2003 has been a research associate at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. He lives with his wife and daughter in New York City and Hebron, New York.

To learn more, visit www.gordonchaplin.com
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