Character and Setting are some of the first story elements that an author must sort out before starting to write a book. Those who write for children and teens have a special challenge when it comes to creating memorable settings. We can’t afford ourselves the luxury of spending pages and pages describing a lush mountain panorama or an entire chapter recounting the antics of a turtle crossing a dusty road (forgive me Steinbeck).
We would simply lose our readers.
Young people don’t seem to care much about landscapes and sunsets and what type of birds might be migrating through the Bosque del Apache this month. I think back on family road trips where I’ve pointed excitedly out the window and said stuff like, “Hey kids, look at that. It’s the Grand Canyon.”
The kids, busy texting in the back seat, barely look up.
What kids, teens in particular, really care about are people and relationships. That’s the way it should be but it does discourage a novelist from spending a chapter describing the geese flying south.
So what’s an author to do? The easiest solution is to forget about setting altogether and let the reader fill in the blanks, especially in contemporary fiction. The notion is that kids will automatically visualize their town or city and thus the story will feel more personal to them.
I call this phenomenon ANYTOWN, USA.
Let’s face it. Our cities and even our small towns are all looking more and more alike. If you drive down any busy avenue you are likely to see the same fast food restaurants, department chains, outlet stores and gas stations whether you’re in Southern California or Upstate New York or Plainview, Texas. It isn’t until you venture off on the side streets that you begin to find richness and diversity.
But that can take up a lot of pages and there is the danger that young readers will get lost. Or toss the book in favor of something with a faster pace.
In my case, for better or for worse, I’ve never been able to set a story in ANYTOWN. That’s because, for me, character and setting are inextricable. Simply put, people are shaped by the places they live. Yes, we are all the same but we are also unique. Desert people are different from beach people and they in turn are different from city people and mountain people.
I think back on my own experiences. I went to four different first grades. I began my elementary experience at a Lutheran school with a playground so small they had to block off the street during recess so we’d have a place to play kickball. During winter the skies were a dismal gray and the ground was a dismal brown. Dirty slush (from a mixture of snow and muddy galoshes) seemed to cover everything. When most people think of Chicago they picture city lights and jazz and the El. Not me. I think of walking into the corner grocery store and seeing the dismal brown slush melting on the floor. But then my family was going through a difficult and dismal time.
This brings me to my first point in how to create a memorable setting. It must reflect a MOOD. In order for a setting to be unforgettable, it must show the inner landscape of a character. The truth is that the way I see the world is colored by my frame of mind. I could have been living next to Disneyland during the time period described above and I would have probably noticed the L.A. smog instead of the Matterhorn. So, not only does setting shape character but a setting is interpreted through the eyes of the character. The river shapes the canyon and the canyon contains the river.
What would one be without the other?
Speaking of rivers and canyons, settings can also be used to create vivid METAPHORS. In my upcoming novel THE ROAD TO HUNTSTVILLE (working title, Simon Pulse, summer 2010), a 17 year-old boy on the run from the law and an inner city gang goes looking for his father who is about to be executed in Huntsville, Texas. Huntsville is a fascinating little Texas town. There are 37,000 residents. Several thousand of these are inmates from the 9 different prisons in and around the immediate area. What better metaphor could I use to reflect the inner and outer journey of a boy on the run?
To sum up my first RULES FOR THE ROAD TO UNFORGETTABLE PLACES: Rule #1- Utilize the setting as a metaphor to show the inner mood and landscape of your character. Stick to this rule and you won’t find yourself describing a lone turtle on a dusty road that gets nailed by a passing car but keeps on going…
Then again, that is a pretty good metaphor for writing.