Small Town Settings: Cute Nostalgia or Dark Secrets?

Spello 2They’ve become a fixture of American literature because they’re a fixture of American geography: those dinky little towns of 500 to 2,000 souls, clinging desperately to the industry or the Interstate that keeps them from disappearing into the empty places of this country. Though few people like to live in these places, many of us like to read stories set in an American small town.

On one level, this setting is appealing because it offers a certain nostalgia for a simpler time, when the whole town knew your name and you could count on any of them to help you out of a tight spot. To a degree, small towns in popular culture signify communal trust and the virtues of a small, close-knit family. That’s why, when you need a character who’s a bit naive, one of the go-to choices for backstory is to have them come from an itty-bitty town way out in the sticks.

However, as anyone who actually grew up in one of these towns can tell you, it’s very easy to lose that wide-eyed innocence without moving to the big city. The dark side of small towns in America is well-known: these places tend to be isolated, insular, and plagued by poverty and bad education. In fiction, that’s just the start of the trouble. Drugs in the water supply, doomsday cults, serial killers, and beautiful families of teenage vampires are just some of the dark secrets held by small towns in American literature.

So, why do we insist on keeping up this idea that we, that any of us, perceive a small town to be a cute little oasis of innocence in a mean ol’ urban world? You can argue that it’s political, and it probably is, but it’s also probably because of the prideful cynicism we have in this country. Yes, we want to be the one to debunk that inspirational quote on our friend’s Facebook. We want to be the first one to tell Aunt Hortense that her chain e-mail is an urban legend. If we admit that we already know that a small town is just as dark and dangerous as the Big Scary City, then we lose the chance to re-live that beautiful smug journey toward Being Right All Along.

So, when you decide to set a story in a small town, feel free to paint it as the cheery, innocent place where you’d just love to settle down and start a family. Your audience won’t mind – especially if you later give them a chance to “discover” the hidden dark side of your All-American setting.

To Every Story There Is a Season

Grapes at sunsetOnce you find yourself with a certain number of plants under your care, you start finding that your housework schedule is largely dictated by the seasons. Spring, summer, and fall each come with their own set of deadlines you’ve got to meet if you want to have a thriving garden.

Vegetables aren’t the only things that benefit when you take your cues from the seasons. When you’re crafting a story, you need to pay attention to the time of year when your story takes place. If you do this correctly, the seasons can be anything from a pleasant and realistic backdrop to a powerful element of your setting.

Many writers choose to have the season reflect the theme of a story. For example, if you’re writing a romance novel about a grieving widow opening her heart to love, then you might begin the story in the cold and damp of early spring. While you shouldn’t be ham-handed with the symbolism, it’s easy to use this setting to highlight the theme of romance bringing life back into your heroine’s heart.

Other writers like to use the season as part of the conflict driving the story. Someone driving through a blizzard to escape a bad situation or see to a loved one, for example, is facing a conflict that is largely driven by a seasonal event. Each time of year has its own variety of calamities associated with it. Picking one that adds to your story’s theme makes the season doubly important to the story.

Every element of your setting should be thought out carefully, and the season when your story takes place is no exception. By setting your story in different seasons, you get access to different kinds of symbolism as well as different kinds of interesting conflicts.

Setting a Scene: A Creative Writing Excercise

DCP_0039In an earlier post, I talked about using an image diary as a writing exercise. Writing down a scene is a similar process: you pick a scene from your daily life, take a moment, and describe what you see. For instance, you might take a break from cleaning your garage to describe the way that tools and spare bits of lumber are arranged on the far wall next to the workbench.

This exercise is the writer’s equivalent of an an artist drawing a still life for practice. In both instances, you’re fine-tuning the way you communicate a group of images to an audience. Many writers find scene-setting to be a difficult task when composing a creative work. It’s easy to use too little or too much detail, and language can seem like an inadequate tool for conveying a sense of space or form. However, with practice, you’ll find that it gets easier and easier to give your reader a good sense of where the story is happening.

When you practice setting a scene by describing scenes from life, pay attention to efficiency of language as well as elegance of language. You want the reader’s attention to be gripped by the images themselves, not the florid language you’ve chosen to describe them. It may take some time to get settled into a cadence that flows beautifully but still gets the job done. As with all writing exercises, practice really makes perfect when describing scenes from life.

You can complete this exercise in any setting, from a beautiful riverbank to your office’s break room. The important thing is to keep at it until you’ve developed a good sense of what you need to convey when you describe your setting to your reader. Learning to set a scene with efficient and beautiful language is a key step to becoming a great writer.

Whisking the Reader Away with a Historical Setting

DCP_0145From the ancient streets of Babylon to the smoky speakeasies of the Prohibition Era, historical settings are a favorite of readers and writers alike. Whether a story is built around a significant event in history (like the Bite Me series) or simply set during a well-known period (like the equally fabulous Lackadaisy), historical fiction offers the reader a chance to get lost in a world that is at once foreign and familiar.

Extensive and intimate research is the key to using a historical setting well. If your story is set during the Napoleonic Wars, then the readers are already vaguely familiar with the world of your story. If you only tell them what they already know about your historical setting, you’re not letting the historical setting live up to its potential – and worse, you’re likely boring your reader. Instead, lead the reader into your period setting with interesting and accurate details that bring the world to life.

Obviously, you should not be so pedantic about your historic details that you turn your novel into a history lesson. The reader should be able to get a good sense of how your characters live, what kinds of work they do, and what kind of social structures they need to navigate on their way to get what they want. Even though you need to be accurate in order to create a convincing world for your reader, be careful not to get so involved with the setting that you under-develop your original ideas. The idea with historical fiction is not to tell the reader “what really happened,” but rather to tell the reader “what really could have happened.”

Well-researched historical settings give the reader an exciting, engaging tour of times long past. While major events can and should influence your narrative, intimate details about everyday life are what will make the story vivid and interesting.

The Call of the Overwhelming: American Naturalism and the Wild Setting

Abruzzo - lakeThe American Naturalists differed from the Romantics in the way they responded to a challenging setting. When you see snow-capped peaks and gaping chasms in Romantic literature, the characters are generally being offered at least an opportunity for redemption.

American Naturalism, despite its name, does not look so kindly on the natural world. The builders of this genre, such as Stephen Crane and Jack London, did not share the Romantic opinion that an encounter with the natural world would necessarily make a protagonist better. On the contrary, the natural world of the Naturalists is a threatening force. Although nature promises to change the protagonists of Naturalist stories, the change is almost always for the worse. Although the characters may start out as civilized people with little connection to nature, the natural world invites the characters to give in to their most basic instincts and urges as they become one with the setting.

We cannot read the work of the Naturalists without acknowledging the genre’s roots in the Industrial Revolution. At this point in history, civilization (even with all its ugly trappings) promised to save humanity from the nasty, brutish, and short lives promised by an agrarian lifestyle. Naturalist stories present us with the conflict between the civilized and the uncivilized; while the uncivilized world might tempt the characters with its mystery and vitality, it ultimately promises them a nasty end that can only be avoided through contact with civilization.

Today’s authors, unlike the American Naturalists, are not working in the shadow of the Industrial Revolution. In fact, literature these days is more focused on mourning the loss of the natural world to the civilized world. However, like all literary movements, Naturalism leaves us some handy narrative techniques that we can put to good use in contemporary prose. The conflict between humanity and nature provides us with a simple yet powerful framework for thrilling adventure narratives, and it gives us the spicy backdrop for romance narratives where one heroic character is “tamed” by the other’s affections.

There are as many opportunities for you to be influenced by the American Naturalists as there are opportunities to use natural settings in your writing. Although the conflict between humanity and nature need not be the driving force behind your narrative, it can always help characters learn new things about themselves and get the motivation to bring about a story-changing event. Allowing your setting to be part of your story’s conflict can bring depth to your setting and help you move your plot along without adding a multitude of extra characters.

What Are We Writing About When We Write About Food?

Teddybear hamThe Devil really is in the details for many creative writers. On one hand, we know we need to use details in order to give the reader a vivid image of our scenes and characters. On the other hand, spending too much time describing insignificant details can easily leave our readers just as bored with our writing as if we’d shown them a blank page.

Writers seem to be particularly prone to trotting out the trivial when it comes to mealtimes. Between descriptions of a meal’s courses, praises of a domestic character’s simple home cooking, mentions of exotic foods a character might not have seen before, and brief asides to tell the reader a little about a fictional variety of bread or cheese, authors have ample opportunities to start chewing on the scenery whenever their characters sit down for a meal.

However, the temptation to talk about our characters’ meals is far from irrational. Food is a part of culture. When we have our characters ordering hash browns in a dimly-lit diner or eating sweetmeats at the Christmas feast or digging in their traveling packs for hard bread and wrinkly apples, we are communicating a wealth of information about the world they are navigating. The items our characters take from the table are often indicative of their role in the book’s culture – James Bond’s martini comes to mind as a classic example of an important, telling culinary detail that helps define the character.

If you want to improve your use of detail when it comes to food in your writing, go over a scene where your characters are eating and make a list of the delectable details you’ve included. For each detail, write down a note about what it tells the reader. If it’s important – say, if the supposedly wealthy heiress is rail-thin and eats meat in slow, tiny bites – then by all means keep it. If it’s not important – like the saltiness of a particular cheese I described randomly in one of my own projects – then it’s contributing to stale writing, and you ought to throw it out. By choosing to use meaningful details and eliminating the less important ones, you can help ensure that your audience never loses its taste for your writing.

A Gothic Novel’s Home is its Creepy Castle

Gualdo CattaneoHuman beings have never stopped being impressed by castles. From the days when they stood tall against Viking raiders to this modern age of ruins and tourist attractions, these magnificent buildings have been the scene of some of our most marvelous fantasies.

One genre of literature that owes a particular debt to those ancient builders is the Gothic novel. Although this genre is rightly considered to be intertwined with the rest of the Romantic movement, it deserves some special attention because of the unique mark it left on the literary world. This is the genre that gave us the dark, brooding antihero, the dark secret locked in a forbidden room, and (perhaps most importantly) the narrative of the captive heroine trying desperately to escape the confines of the terrifying castle.

Like the soaring outdoor settings found in other Romantic fiction, the setting of the Gothic castle transforms the novel’s characters through the power of the sublime. However, where Byron’s peaks and Shelley’s frozen wastes transform through an almost divine experience, the looming castles of Radcliffe and Reeve transform their occupants by exposing them to horror. Ghostly or Satanic figures, carnal temptation, sensational violence, and maddening isolation all drive the narrative’s heroine to her escape with her lover – or, as in Matthew Lewis’ famously scandalous novel The Monk – to her untimely and gruesome death. Many Gothic novels resonate with the theme of punishment for sexual self-expression. Sometimes, the character is allowed to escape and find redemption outside the castle walls. However, characters are just as often left to perish in agony, sometimes by Satan himself.

The Gothic castle still stands in contemporary fiction, from Jim Henson’s Labyrinth to the sad story of Sansa Stark in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Modern writers speak to an audience much more difficult to scandalize than the readers of The Monk and The Castle of Otranto; they therefore have much more leeway when it comes to what misadventures their characters will face and what lessons the characters will learn. From the coldly traditional confines of an ancient fortress to the tentacular temptation of the Lovecraftian milieu, writers of modern Gothic novels have a wide array of unnerving elements they can use to terrify and transform  their characters.

A Romantic Getaway: Shakespeare’s Green World Narrative and Modern Writers

DCP_0710When we think of Shakespeare’s impact on modern literature, we’re tempted to think of only the loftiest works: innovative volumes of sonnets, daring new applications of metered verse, and  adaptations of the Bard’s plays that strike the perfect balance between modern relevance and historical accuracy. We are less likely to think of Weekend at Bernie’sCaddyshackWedding Crashers, or Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. We are even less likely to think of our own romantic works – partly for fear of flattering ourselves too much, to be sure, but also partly because some of Shakespeare’s contributions, like the green world narrative, have become so ubiquitous that it’s easy to ignore them.

The green world narrative is the common thread that binds Shakespeare’s plays to the bawdy romantic comedies of today’s silver screen. This narrative, which begins by setting up conflict in an urban setting, has our characters fleeing to a natural setting to escape whatever nastiness has corrupted their home in the city. However, the green world is almost always more than it seems, and it is the realm of faeries whose top priority is their own amusement (often at the expense of the heroes). Nonetheless, the strange and unlikely events that happen in the green world allow the characters to resolve the city-born conflict and come home to a happy ending.

In Shakespeare’s works, the green world narrative is most clearly on display in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, and The Tempest. It is also the foundation for a number of modern romantic comedies – although Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle has been a particular favorite of mine ever since I realized that Neil Patrick Harris is thoroughly enjoying his role as a present-day Puck.

However, it is when I find myself sitting down to write a romance that I appreciate the green world narrative the most. It’s an incredibly flexible structure, asking only that I distinguish between an urban setting and a green world setting – and maybe put part of the plot-driving responsibility in the hands of a strange, eccentric, or even supernatural character. A green world narrative can be set in Boston or ancient Greece; faeries can be played by a range of characters from a shamanic healer to an eccentric neighbor. Letting the green world narrative guide your romantic or erotic work can help you stop worrying about what your plot will be and start developing vivid, memorable characters who your audience will cherish and cheer for long after they’ve put the book down.

Tone and flavour

Autumn roses 1Tone and flavour are two words which don’t seem to belong to the world of writing. The first could have been taken equally from the worlds of music or painting, and the second is definitely culinary.

They are, however, very important concepts in writing; in fact they’re sometimes so important that like the ‘elephant in the room’ they’re too big to be seen properly.

Strangely enough, tone and flavour are very close in meaning; in fact one could almost consider them to be synonymous. They stand for the bias in the book’s choice of setting, plot, characters and language which, as a whole, elicits a reaction in the reader, whether it be one of sympathy and attraction, or one of repulsion.

Let me take 2 examples. One novel is set in the back streets of London. The only weather ever described is rain, and the whole environment is bleak and ugly. The characters are miserable and depressed, they don’t enjoy their jobs, and they have unsatisfactory relationships. When they go to a café, the food is unappetising, the cutlery is greasy, and the service is grumpy.

The second novel takes place in a jungle. The author is at great pains to describe the heat, the humidity, the smell of the damp vegetation and of the various types of flowers and fruits. The rain patters on the leaves. Everything is in abundance, even in excess. The characters are full of life and sexual fervour. Their bodies are smooth and tanned. They eat fruit and edible shoots. They are improvident and happy-go-lucky.

Obviously these 2 books represent extremes. But they are each unified in their representation of reality and they will each evoke a response in the reader. The first novel may come over as boring, samey, depressing or, conversely, as realistic, gritty, grass-roots. The second novel may be seen as oppressive, over-exuberant, alien, or alternatively colourful, exotic, dreamy.

Some readers, if questioned, might pick on one aspect of the book as having elicited their response – setting, plot, outcome, for example – but others are likely to be less articulate and say they just ‘liked it’ or ‘didn’t like it’. In many instances they will have been affected by the book’s tone or flavour.

Authors who are wise to this audience reaction may deliberately create a tone or a flavour by means of introducing more restricted but repeated devices such as smells or perfumes (diesel oil, roses), or sounds ( water, traffic). They may stylise the dialogue or the descriptions.

Naturally, some authors aren’t conscious of introducing tone or flavour to their books. Perhaps, in some cases, it goes naturally with the subject matter, or issues from the writers own innate character. But it pays to be aware of the possibilities.

Is an Ivory Tower a des res?

Ivory Tower - 1It’s an evocative image, a tower made out of milky white ivory, too high and too slippery to assail and with a distant and distorted view of the world below it. A great many writers have inhabited one or perhaps, more to the point, been accused of inhabiting one. But what effect does residence in an ivory tower have on a writer’s output?

It would be tempting just to look at the negative. A writer in an ivory tower is out of touch with the real world; he or she doesn’t walk the streets and talk the talk; they’re devoid of passion; their work is out of date and ultimately irrelevant.

So what do they actually write about? The answer is: all kinds of things. The human imagination is immensely fertile and some of the best works of literature have very little to do with mundane reality. No writer, not even one whose writing desk is behind ivory crenellations, is devoid of experience, feelings and opinions. If he or she writes about lofty matters it may not be that they’re incapable of understanding the current concerns of fellow humanity.

Writing isn’t necessarily a newspaper. Very often inspiration springs from cold, pure sources and is subsequently crafted to aesthetic perfection. This is particularly true of poetry, one of whose functions is to be uplifting.

It’s probably true to say that the smaller, sharper and least wide-reaching of works are the easiest to produce from an ivory tower. A great sprawling novel, depicting the best and worst of humanity and the setting within which they interact, is of its very essence an excrescence from the world’s surface.

But what about fantasy novels? Inventing a whole world in all its details is a cerebral activity, well suited to a state of isolation. But as soon as it has red-blooded, human characters, the walls of the tower begin to crumble.

Labelling someone as living in an ivory tower is usually an insult. But there is certainly a place, and a hallowed place, for works written in such circumstances. Sometimes writing ought not to reflect reality but instead should imitate the ideals for which we strive with our most exalted faculties.