Monday, February 21, 2011

Setting: How Real is Real Enough?

Years ago, I attended a question and answer session with author Bret Lott.

In it, Mr. Lott detailed the methods he used to ensure that the settings of his books were as down-to-the-details accurate as possible. If he was writing about Richmond, Virginia in 1952, for example, he would research how many gas stations there were, how many miles between this part of town and that, the name of the local supermarket, etc etc. He had it down, quite literally, to a science.

I was a much younger writer back then, and in awe of Mr. Lot's dedication. At that time, I was struggling through my first draft of the Novel Previously Known as Idylwilde, and worried about the wanton way I'd taken a real place, Orange Lake, Florida,

and infused it with all the qualities I needed for my novel to work. MY Orange Lake was not chocked with invasive weeds and shrinking with Florida's sorry water table. It was wilder, more rural than it had been during the time I lived in the area. It was the Orange Lake of my memory and my dreams. Uh, oh.

Not only was I a younger writer back then, I was a braver one. I asked Mr. Lott about taking a real place (um, a place in Florida for example....) and re-inventing it in fiction.

He said that was a lazy thing to do. That only a lazy writer would untether herself from the real honest to god place that was actually there on the map and shrug off the minutiae that gave readers a REAL experience. Something like that. My heart was thudding so loud in my ears at that point that I only heard pieces.

I nodded sheepishly. Okay, then. If I ever got to my final draft, I'd change the goshdurned name of the place altogether! (Yes, Mr. Lott, this is possibly the most lazy response imaginable....)

But even now, after many, many "final" versions of the novel, I have left the setting alone. Because it IS Orange Lake-- MY Orange Lake. And it fits.

In Family, Genius, Species, I took an even lazier route and from the get-go invented a town.... sort of.

I really invented the name of a town, switched around the details, the direction Main Street runs, the level of dilapidation.... but if you live in Western Mass, you know that my Burning Falls is more or less this place:

...a place I love so much I sometimes go the long way around just so I can soak in its wonderful New England Milltown-ness, a place that's in constant, failing renewal, a place that is just so close to perfect it makes my heart ache...

Nowadays, I'm okay with my lazy tendencies-- at least when it comes to setting.

This is fiction after all, and I want to portray the feel of a place, its gritty skies and derelict brickwork, its lush humid air, its whatever I feel it is. That's my writerly prerogative, right?

Do you agree? How do you approach setting in your work?


Angie said...

I agree. I don't think it's good to get bogged down in too many details. Lovely pictures!

Laurel Garver said...

We aren't writing NONfiction, we're writing fiction! I'm all for making a place seem as real as possible, but frankly I think you're more likely to have fewer problems with a piece feeling dated or with lawsuits if you do a riff on reality. Some of my favorite novels are Susan Howatch's Starbridge series, in which she creates a cathedral town based on Salisbury.

Creating an entire town from scratch is not lazy. It's really about having more control.

Misha said...

I create places.

It's safer than to try (and invariably fail) to copy a place donw exactly.

Anyway, that response is just another example of snobism.

I mean, I have my methods, but it doesn't mean that all other methods are inferior.

Sometimes people are just so... grrr.

Alicia Gregoire said...

It depends on the story and what feel I'm going for. I find creating fictional locations is much easier because you can force things around better.

maryw said...

Where's the real Burning Falls?? I love the fictional one--didn't know I could actually visit.

Perri said...

Thanks, guys. I feel quite validated now. :)

And Mary, Burning Falls is more or less Turner's Falls. If you drive west on Rte 2, past Erving you'll see this dramatic "gorge" with Turner's Falls on the opposite bank. It is one of the most awesome places in New England, in my opinion. (And if you do decide to visit-- let me know. I'll meet you!)

Laura Campbell said...

I'm going to mimic everyone's comments on the subject. Number one, if you are trying to capture a feeling you had a child, why in the world would you bury it under factual research? Number two, how you present your setting, albeit fictional or real, is the writer's preference. You are trying to capture your reader's attention and you have to do what feels right for you. Way to follow your instincts!

Nick Thomas said...

I like apricots and like the title!

Oh, and Happy Presidents Pets Day -the day after Presidents Day, as I like to call it. In the US, of course we love our presidents..... pets. See my blog if you’re in the mood for a good ol' irreverent howl.