Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Rachel: Location, Location, Location

This is my first post from the Crowe's Nest, and let me just say, the view is stunning. Are those Juliette balconies?


I'm looking for some new digs, and I've been spending a lot of time ogling pictures of granite countertops, exposed duct work, and whirlpool baths. There's one place with interior Roman arches that overlooks Chicago's Victorian-era Rosehill cemetery ... 


And another that's vintage industrial with a bedroom door that looks like it leads to a foundry.

For the record, I can't afford either.

But that's not the important part. The important part is that two very different people live (or will live) in these homes. And the pictures of those homes are on the internet, free for snoops like me to browse.

There is a sort of person who loves a vessel sink. I see a vessel sink and get itchy -- I imagine catching my wrist on its edge, knocking it over, and cracking the tile.

vessel sink

But maybe my character needs one. Maybe hers makes her feel like a medieval princess -- or a Gossip Girl. Maybe she breaks it and realizes the fragility of her parents' bourgeois pretensions ... or something.

I recently said to a friend that my issues with my novel in progress boiled down to, "Why this thing? Why this girl?"

I forgot about, "Why this place?"

When I shared a synopsis of that novel with my Vermont College roomie Jessica Leader, author of Nice and Mean, she mentioned that much of the story felt floaty, like it might have been set anywhere.

Oh. Mm-hm.

My setting needed specificity, a cemetery or a foundry, a balcony or a vessel sink ...

I was reminded of an exercise from a screenwriting class. We each wrote down an interesting location, put them all in a hat, and then drew one at random.  Then we had to write (or rewrite) a scene set there.

Soon our characters were touching things, moving through space, and *gasp* having symbolically charged relationships to their environments.

This weekend, I started Nova Ren Suma's Imaginary Girls, which opens on a mythically-charged reservoir. After only one gorgeous chapter, it's clear that the story could happen nowhere else.

I think of one of my (and Jess Leader's) favorites, Edward Bloor's Tangerine, which would be nothing without its Florida of sinkholes, muck fires, a hyperreal gated community, and endangered tangerine groves.

Just yesterday on Fresh Air, Aaron Sorkin discussed The West Wing's "walk and talk" scenes, which originated from his director's desire to add visual interest to the show. 

Novels need visual interest too. It's too easy to get hung up with talking heads and interior monologues.

I give you permission to "waste time" on Flickr, on any of the image resources listed on OneHistory.org, in real estate . . . or on a local blog, like this one: Naaman Fletcher's What's Left of Birmingham.  

His photo of an abandoned pool in Irondale, Alabama, reminds me of a site-specific scene from the novel I recently sold ... a scene set at an abandoned pool ... in Irondale, Alabama. What?


The internet is magic.

Or try setting your scene in one of these places, and see what happens:
A children's museum
A junkyard
An amusement park 
A foreclosed office building
The zoo
The bedroom of that one kid you knew in high school
A thrift store
Your mom's house

Better yet, suggest a setting in the comments -- leave a challenge for someone else!


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. The ending of my novel wasn't working at all, and I discovered that the problem was the setting. The climax was happening in the middle of a corn field! Nobody could do anything except get stuck in the mud or hide in plants.

    I scrapped the ending and now it takes place in an abandoned zoo that's a day away from demolition. So. Much. Better. I totally agree with the power of a great setting, pushing it to an extreme. It does wonders.

  3. That Jess Leader knows her stuff!

    Brilliant post, Rachel! I often get so caught up with what's in my characters' heads that I forget about the setting, too. Great reminder to pay attention and use the "character" of setting.

    Setting challenge: on a steam train headed east, 1880. (The when is as important as the where.)

  4. Great post, Rachel. And I loved Imaginary Girls as well.

  5. I love where a vessel sink can take you! Thanks for the excellent post.

  6. Hey Rachel, cool post. Thanks for the reminder! "The bedroom of that one kid you knew in high school." Hmm... :) How about a campsite or a mountain trail? Maybe an old three-seater Chevy pickup?

  7. Rachel! Every time I read something of yours, it ends too soon, leaving me wanting more. I can't wait for the release of yor book so I'll have endless pages of your brilliance. I'm somewhere on the Sassafrass River, a stunning snaking tributary that winds its way through the eastern shore of MD. Over the last few months I've been paying attention to scenery but haven't written a word. Today, your post changed all of that. It reminded me of the story I'd been working on before heading to sea, set in the late 60's in Miami. And it reminded me to take a closer look at those endless emails I've received from friends that say, "You know you lived in Miami in the 60s if you. . ." and then provides photos and text of and about those good 'ole days. Thanks for the inspiration. (And yes, I know I should be working on some seafaring adventure. Argh!)

  8. An inspiring post! Hmm, if I could add something to that list it would be...anything on the list that had been abandoned for about a year. :)

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  10. With my current WIP I spent some time going through pictures of the city to help me with my setting. I was surprised at how much it helped!

    And hm, for another setting I'll leave a furniture store.

  11. Banned complain !! Complaining only causes life and mind become more severe. Enjoy the rhythm of the problems faced. No matter ga life, not a problem not learn, so enjoy it :)

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