February 4, 2010

Don’t Forget Your Passport

Don’t you love those stories, be they science fiction or historical fiction or travelogs or whatever, that immerse you in a place that seems so exotic yet familiar? Sometimes books about where you’re from, a place you’re familiar with, can do this to you too. It’s such a knack to have enough detail to visualize and “understand” a place yet have the details be the exact right ones both for the character and to encapsulate the place, yet not bog down the story.

I was thinking about this as I was rereading C.J. Cherryh’s science fiction ~ she has the knack of situating you quickly and effectively, even inside an alien ~ and also as I was watching a video interview with E.L. Doctorow at the New York Times. Doctorow said that, to him, New York City isn’t a place like the West or Midwest that one could write about place, but it occurred to him that you could base fiction in the past in the same way you can base it in a place. You create a world. Another way to put it: “The past is another country.” Not quite sure where the quote comes from. (A cursory internet search reveals that it could be the opening sentence of The Go-between by the British L.P. Hartley, as well as the titles of a historical by the Australian Lois Battle and a crime novel by the Italian Gianrico Carofiglio.)

I think this is so true. My first novel manuscript (sitting in a drawer collecting dust) was a historical novel, and its research was so much fun and the imagining what it would’ve been like and the putting that on the page. It’s a wonder I got it done, the research was so much fun. Creating that world was a much more conscious effort than the one in the novel I have out to agents, which is set in the present.

I do think people go overboard. They try to leave out no detail, and the narrative bogs down to the point that the reader thinks, “What’s the point?” There’s a fine balance to be had. The details have to be the right ones ~ the details that that point of view would notice described in the way that point of view person would see it. One telling detail is worth ten boring descriptions.

But I do think it’s absolutely true ~ and a useful way to look at things ~ to consider setting not just landscape but historical moment too. It’s the way that place, that moment in time, that family, have all come together to affect that character.

The use of setting is a challenging issue and one I’m still working out. Sometimes I think there’s not enough of it in my work, but I’ve had people tell me that this or that has a “wonderful sense of place.” Maybe it’s a matter of it being like air ~ you don’t know it’s there but it’s all around you and it permeates you. But I constantly strive to make it a more conscious process.

What I’m Reading Today: I think I’m fighting a cold, so I’m actually wistfully wishing for a young adult adventure/comfort novel. Oh, not to have yet read all of Tolkien and Harry Potter.

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