Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Mary: Setting: Fiction's 'Lesser Angel'?

When I get the first glimmer of an idea for a new piece of work, it usually includes a character doing something in a particular setting—a younger brother secretly following an older brother through the woods, a girl rollerblading inside an old piano factory, two mice detectives working in a cluttered office, friends walking home from school in an L.A. barrio. Setting is part of my initial vision, and, as one draft follows the next, it becomes increasingly inseparable from the other elements of my story.

Many times a writer is so intent on developing captivating characters and a page-turning plot that setting doesn’t get the attention it deserves. A novel’s setting is as much a part of creating and enhancing a story’s meaning as any other part of the story.

I love how Eudora Welty, in The Eye of the Story, refers to setting as ‘a lesser angel’ of fiction and suggests we pay her more attention:

“Place is one of the lesser angels that watch over the racing hand of fiction, perhaps the one that gazes benignly enough from off to one side, while others, like character, plot, symbolic meaning, and so on, are doing a good deal of wingbeating about her chair, and feeling, who in my eyes carries the crown, soars highest of them all and rightly relegates place into the shade. Nevertheless, it is this lowlier angel that concerns us here. There have been signs that she has been rather neglected of late; maybe she could do with a little petitioning.”

Let’s take a look at place in two of my favorite novels.

Imagine, for example, changing the setting of Angela Johnson’s Toning the Sweep from desert to beachside community. Or, picture moving Cynthia Rylant’s characters, Summer, Ob, and Cletus, in Missing May, from the trailer on the side of a West Virginia mountain to a triple-decker in Boston.

Impossible! As Welty says, “The very notion of moving a novel brings ruder havoc to the mind and affections than would a century’s alteration in its time.”

In Toning the Sweep, fourteen-year-old Emmie and her mother must go to the desert in Little Rock, California to help grandmother Ola pack up her house and leave the community she loves. As they first drive into the desert, Emmie, the narrator, introduces readers to the setting:

I’ve always thought there should be bones in the desert. Turned white by the sun and lying on the side of the road for everybody to see so that they can turn back before it’s too late…. (7)

The image of bones burned white by the sun prepares readers for the bleak journey that lies ahead. As the story unfolds, the novel’s desert setting becomes a living, breathing presence, providing a fitting backdrop for a family’s quest to heal from the pain of Grandaddy’s murder after many years of suffering, anger, and denial. Towards the story’s end, Emmie climbs the hills at the edge of the desert with a friend. From there, she gets a beautiful view of the valley and hears the sound of water in a creek.

There’s a point where you can see the entire valley.… A creek twists around the bottom; we can hear it from the top of the hill. I can’t wait to put my feet in the cool water below.
David and I sit in the creek for a couple of hours. Leaves float by, and we lean back on the rocks and look up at the sky. (80)

Images of water and floating leaves contrast with previous descriptions of the dry, lifeless desert. During a crucial turning point, Johnson’s characters interact with a new setting, signaling hope and change.

Missing May tells the story of twelve-year-old Summer who lives alone with her elderly Uncle Ob after her beloved Aunt May has died. Summer’s personal struggle to get beyond her own grief is compounded by the fact that Ob is falling into a deeper and deeper depression.

There is a lot of sadness in Rylant’s story, yet the story is anything but gloomy. This is, in part, because of the setting.

Rylant provides her characters with unique, well-wrought settings that provide contrast to their emotions while comforting the reader during heartbreaking moments. Consider this description of their home in Deep Water, West Virginia.

Home was, and still is, a rusty old trailer stuck on the face of a mountain in Deep Water, in the heart of Fayette Country. It looked to me, the first time, like a toy that God had been playing with and accidentally dropped out of heaven. Down and down and down it came and landed, thunk, on this mountain, sort of cockeyed and shaking and grateful to be all in one piece. Well, sort of one piece. Not counting that part in the back where the aluminum’s peeling off, or the one missing window, or the front steps that are sinking. (5)

From the start, readers are grounded in a clear sense of place in which to watch the story unfold. The trailer is a toy of God, mistakenly dropped but cradled in the side of a mountain. Like its inhabitants, it’s grateful to be sort of all in one piece. When Summer takes readers inside and shows us shelves and shelves of the magical whirligigs and colorful cabinets of “Oreos and Ruffles and big bags of Snickers," (8), we know that, no matter how sad the book might become, we are in a place of safety, whimsy, and love.

Toning the Sweep by the ocean? Missing May in Los Angeles? The sense of place in these two books is as much a part of them as their endearing characters and uplifting themes. One can imagine the angels of plot and character and other novelistic elements “wingbeating about” Johnson and Rylant’s chairs as they wrote their novels, but place as a “lesser angel”?

In Toning the Sweep and Missing May the angel of place most definitely did not allow herself to be relegated to the shade.


  1. beautiful post. made me think.

  2. I too, am a huge fan of setting. I can't write anything until I have a strong sense of place. It locates me. Literally. And often, when I'm stuck, I'll start writing about the actual "where" of my characters, and this usually leads me back into the story.

  3. I love books where the setting is almost a character in and of itself.

    Great post!

  4. Thanks, Mary. Just yesterday I read the article in the Dec issue of The Writer's Chronicle (AWP publication) where Tim Weed discusses in depth what he calls the Domaine Perdu—a novel's setting or landscape, with all its emotional attachments. You can take any book and do what you've suggested—try to place it anywhere else, and it suffers. I think of books like HOLES or THE ENGLISH PATIENT and how integral setting is.

  5. "Wingbeating about," I love that. I'll remember it as I contemplate my settings. Excellent post, Mary!

  6. Thanks, everyone, for your comments. Can you think of a book you admire where setting is not part of the story?

  7. Wonderful post, Mary. I'll mull over your most recent comment. Off-hand I can't think of any "settling-less" story. At least, not any well-crafted story.