Welcome to our monthly blog chat with writing guru Sydney Smith and fellow Penguin author Kathryn Ledson. Today we’re talking about the role of setting in narrative.
This writing caper is full of surprises and learning curves. Even now, with two books published, I sometimes feel like I’m only just ready to graduate. From Novel Writing kindergarten.
When I wrote Rough Diamond, I planned to keep its Melbourne setting to a minimum. Why would I do this? Well, it’s about my own reading preferences. Firstly, I like a fast-paced plot with plenty of action, not lengthy descriptions. But mostly because my own taste is for exotic locations―places I’ve never seen or would love to see. Parts of the world that exude whatever isn’t Melbourne. Because Melbourne’s humdrum, right? It’s my city, where I grew up in my dull little life. It’s just an extension of boring old me. It’s all so everyday, routine, familiar. How could it be interesting?
Rough Diamond was released, and reviews poured in. Imagine my surprise that many of the positive comments were about the Melbourne setting! The setting I’d so determinedly kept vague (as I thought) with just a few snippets to place the reader: the streets of Richmond, the botanic gardens and tan track, South Melbourne market, Crown casino, Collingwood football club, the local pub. All those very boring, everyday, familiar spots. As it turned out, in my naiveté, I’d unwittingly yet convincingly set my novel in Melbourne.
Until I read those reviews, I hadn’t realised―or rather considered―how enjoyable the familiar can be. In reading we relate to characters for various reasons; we share their pains, joys, experiences of all kinds. So, too, I’ve learned, can we relate to a novel’s setting and enjoy the company of familiar turf. Joggers who frequent the tan track, people queuing for those famous South Melbourne market dim sims, our love and hate of Collingwood football club.
Funnily enough, I appreciate Melbourne more now. In fact, I’m giving careful attention to place in my current work-in-progress, Grand Slam (working title, my publisher reminds me to add), which is set around the internationally famous Australian Open tennis tournament, hosted by my own beautiful Melbourne. My characters will spend time at the tennis and surrounds as well as thrilling, familiar spots like Southbank and Chadstone Shopping Centre (Chaddy!). And you know what? I’m feeling so excited about it, I might take a quick research trip now…
I do get what you’re saying, Kath, about the allure of the exotic. But I also get the thrill of reading a novel set in a familiar place. The former is an escape from daily life. The latter makes me feel as if I’m IN the novel I’m reading. I could walk out my door and bump into these characters, pop them on the nose if they irritate me, hug them if I like them.
I happen to like a good description. One of the things I love about early Michael Connelly, US crime writer, is the depth of characterisation of LA, where his novels are set. His series hero, Harry Bosch, lives in a house on the side of a hill, with scrub choking the arroyo below, scrub bearing Spanish names―that word “arroyo”, too, which conjures up the dry deserts of California and nearby Nevada. He usually spots a coyote trotting amidst the brush. The coyote is his animal, the battered loner struggling to survive in the increasing urbanisation of its native land.
Harry works in West Hollywood, a place seamed with porno shops, greasy hotels where rooms are rented by the hour, soiled junkies and prostitutes. The big Hollywood sign looms over the city, promising the dream, but it’s a damaged sign, a symbol you trust at great risk to your life and your heart.
That’s what a good description does. It gives the reader the feel of the place in which the story is set, and therefore, the mood of the story itself. The description should convey emotion. If it’s flatly realistic, it’s probably not doing its job.
I’m with you, Sydney. I love good description. Teachers of writing craft often say that description is boring. Don’t you dare add more than a sentence or two on setting, lest you lose your reader. I think this rule screams out to be broken. A convincing setting helps make any story memorable. But as a writer of Aussie rural fiction, a vivid sense of place is even more vital. Readers of this genre crave a relationship with this country. They’re asking the question :what is it that makes us Australian? And the simple answer is that we come from this place. That’s our identity―the continent itself. And especially that aspect of Australia that is completely different to other places. That doesn’t mean our cities. That means the regions. That means the bush.
In many novels, and particularly in rural novels, place (literally geographical place) functions like a character in the story. It’s one of the most powerful tools that a writer has. For me, setting stories in wild places allows me to strip away the civilised façade from my characters. In Currawong Creek, for example, my main character is a young professional woman caught up in the career rat race. She has time to examine what she fundamentally wants from life when she goes bush. In my new release Billabong Bend, a young man who’s been a drifter, comes home to the riverlands to confront his past and discover his roots. And by becoming grounded again he finds his future.
There must be balance of course. Don’t spend paragraphs describing how things look. Do what Sydney says. Describe how they feel. Use detail. Make it a sensory experience. Here’s an example from my own writing: a man is climbing a tree.
“That precious, familiar calm. Tree climbing. Different to rock-climbing. Trees lived. Even giant Pallawarra still gave with the wind. He moved. Matt moved too, away from the people and the cars and the ravaged earth. He moved into another dimension. For the first time in a long time, Matt focused on the moment. On his breath, his feet, his fingers. A meditation. There was no choice. Any slip was death.
The darkening forest lay in mysterious degrees of light and shade. The more Matt looked at the tree, the more he saw the tree. Its position, its size and form, its unique structure and balance. He saw through its bark-dangled camouflage. He saw its art. A shred of song popped into his head, even though, since Theo, music made him cringe.
‘If you plant ten million trees, none will grow like these.’
Now light rain began falling, deepening the colours. The auburns and browns, the greens and golds, the glistening, mottled curls of stringy-bark streamers. The birds of the upper canopy had long fled, leaving the forest silent. Except for the sound of a strengthening breeze, like the sea-shell psalm of a distant sea.”
And as Kath says, no matter how ordinary the place, assume that some of your readers will be unfamiliar with your setting. The smell of a South Melbourne dim sim that you take for granted, will be a revelation for readers who’ve never visited that market.
That’s beautiful, Jenny. Place plus emotion plus atmosphere equals setting.
I take it back. I love lengthy descriptions if written by Jen Scoullar. Mind you, the above piece is also brimming with action and suspense, yes?