I believe everything happens for a reason. So I like to keep my eyes and ears open for signs that help my novel, especially when that novel feels “meant to be.” Everyday life gives me so many gifts of inspiration.
Example: a conversation at work this week about whether the location for a problem-based learning scenario (PBL) could be changed, in an educational program for gifted kids: that inspired me to better set the stage in my novel.
I’m lucky enough to work in a place where we get to have discussions about best practices in education, one of which is using the power of narrative to reinforce and explore concepts. Our debate was whether we could make the setting of the problem in a small town that would get quite hyped by a minor incident. You know, the way small towns do.
Setting is its own character. I’ve said this to myself a whole bunch, but I don’t always practice this in my writing.
Setting breathes and pounds like a beating heart around and within characters of your novel.
Setting is a vehicle to carry larger truths.
You can be explicit in descriptions, symbolic and weighty as I was with Wendy Redbird Dancing in my novel How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought. Burdened by trauma, walking her neighborhood, here’s what she thinks:
When I disembark from the EZ Rider bus, the air is thick as water and I part it with my body, heaving against it. I pass a dull procession of dying trees lining Oak Street from downtown Millboro toward the Passive Solar, hung with a green, bright, and curly killer, kudzu that suffocates the pine, birch, and oak beneath. Lumpy, monster trees trapped by cancerous masses. Wouldn’t it be nice if a big net of suffocating vines would o’ertake me and let me sleep awhile.
Kudzu’s always freaked me out a little, especially as a teen when I moved here from California. I’d seen ivy but never enough that it appeared to be taking over a small country. Driving by kudzu on the way to work, I saw it as something Wendy would definitely notice as she navigates a very painful existence, one where she feels trapped like a mummy in a perpetrator’s web.
Some writers don’t want that deep a connection, and worry, rightfully so, about pathetic fallacy. My description doesn’t tread there but it’s symbol writ large.
Or you can just set up the facts of the location with plans for those rich details to matter later. (Hopefully, the reader will make those connections, not us.) The conversation at work had me thinking about the four-week span of a story for our program’s PBL scenarios, and how breaking news featured each week is a pacing strategy we use to engage student interest. In the same way, a setting as its own person can not only keep my readers with me but also set things up for later drama.
In my novel in progress, NO SMALL THING, I’m working to develop a setting of extreme fandom and loyalty to the boys’ high school basketball team. Here’s a first draft (first!) of a setting nugget I inserted in a dialogue between Audrey, aspiring sportscaster, and her mother, not a basketball fan. Mom is lecturing her about choosing education as a career instead.
She sighs. “We’ve talked about this. Entertainment is nice, but—”
She’s interrupted by blaring horns and hollers as a huge caravan of pickup trucks pass us on the main drag, festooned with black and yellow streamers. Kids are standing, shaking posters while horns blare, and people on sidewalks salute with brown bags since everyone started drinking early tonight—the kind of pregaming the whole town does when the season starts. THREEPEAT and ALL THE WAY TO STATES pass us by, and then GOT RABIES? with the Farrington Wolverines mascot, and CALL ANIMAL CONTROL RABID WOLVERINES.
Mom shakes her head. “So not safe. Who’s driving?”
This type of fandom will not just be an annoyance to Mom later—it’ll be a real threat to Audrey.
Or there’s the fact that it’s October in North Carolina, 37 degrees one moment, and 77 the other. This is not the norm. Audrey’s mom uses it as a part of her pitch to Audrey (propaganda, really) to become a teacher:
We get in the car before we turn to icicles. A big mosquito buzzes around the dash and bangs against the windshield, half-hearted and sad.
“Lovely,” Mom says. “Thirty-seven degrees tonight and mosquitos are bopping around. See, another reason to get into the classroom and teach these kids science.”
This writing strategy is true for creative nonfiction as well. Writers exploring their memoirs are often faced with the question of whether to recall certain setting elements (and also the moral dilemma of did I really smell that rose and was I really tasting peanut butter so fully when I was four?).
I celebrate that kind of sensory exploration as we dive into setting our life stages in memoir because these are necessary vehicles to grounding our readers in our reality. Whether I really tasted PB & J just that way back in 1970-something isn’t so much the issue as a) I did get PB & J sandwiches for lunch and b) I was a kid of age four who probably fixated on how PB does stick to the roof of your mouth and I would probably talk to my mom about it. And the kitchen was probably yellow and brown in that seventies goodness way of decor. That truth of setting is worth sharing.
All this to say that I wouldn’t have had this epiphany if I didn’t have the day job I have, the conversations we have there. Sometimes, I let negative thinking distract me from my true writer’s purpose. I somehow think I should be working faster, writing better, and doing this whole thing PERFECT.
Crazy talk. Everything is perfect in its time when it comes to artistic process. Things must flower and unfurl…and yes, maybe they’d unfurl faster if I were listening a little harder.
That’s my plan for next week. Listen, ask, discuss. And keep jotting down those fleeting ideas with strings attached
(Note: right now, I’m in an AWESOME writing zone but back in the spring, I felt exactly the opposite than this post. So if you’re having a crappy time with getting pages together, I feel your pain. Sometimes it’s hard to listen to the world around us when we feel our well’s run dry or we can’t generate anything better than the basics.)
How about you? Are things happening for a reason in your writing process? Is real life triggering your story elements?