Sunday, June 7, 2009

Another World

By Lisabet Sarai

Last week on the Grip we talked about characterization. How can an author give depth and verisimilitude to characters who are very different from the author in their background, personalities, orientations? This week's subject, “Setting the Scene”, nicely parallels that discussion, though I didn't know about Helen's topic when I posted mine.

No story takes place in a vacuum (not even in science fiction...;^)). Every character exists in a spatio-temporal context that influences his or her assumptions, perceptions, and reactions. The books that I enjoy most offer a rich sense of the environment surrounding the characters – place and time, climate and history, sound, smell and taste. In the books I write, I try to create that same kind of dense, three-dimensional world in which my characters can play.

Even when I'm writing a short story, I always have some notion of where the action occurs. I might not mention the setting explicitly, though often I will. Of the twenty stories in my print collection Fire, only two fail to identify their location. Of these, one is a sort of prose poem about a many-year relationship, while the other is set in the future. The settings of the others include northern California (five stories), New York City (three stories), Bangkok (two stories), Pittsburgh, New Orleans, the American Midwest, the Maine coast, Prague, Provence, and Laos.

In many cases, the setting is integral to the plot. In every case, I try to make the environment real enough to draw readers into my characters' world.

Often I will mine my own experience when setting the scene. That's one explanation for the repeated appearance of some locales in my work. The passage below, from Raw Silk, is based on my first trip from the Bangkok airport into the city, many years ago

From under heavy eyelids, she watched the roadside sights fly by. Garish neon signs, in English, Thai and Chinese, lit up the night with the names of multinational corporations. Gleaming, modern buildings two dozen stories high alternated with stunted blocks of grimy concrete, weak fluorescent light visible through their open windows. Every now and again, she would glimpse the peaked, layered roofs and delicate spires of a Buddhist temple, rising incongruously from the middle of a residential or industrial district.

The full moon rendered the scene even more alien. High above the horizon by now, it lent a silvery sheen to the buildings, while creating sharp black shadows between and behind them. Brighter than any man made illumination, it reminded Kate of an old-fashioned flashbulb. Each tableau seemed frozen in meticulous detail, captured by the moon like a surrealistic snapshot.

The car was silent, seeming to float over the road. The slight hiss of the air conditioning soothed her. Kate tried to stay alert, to pay attention to her new surroundings, but drowsiness was irresistible.

Here's another scene from my past that shows up in Exposure. I spent four years doing graduate work in Pittsburgh and enjoying the views in that hilly city.

Jimmy signals for the check. Suddenly he's confident and in control. He gives me one of his crooked smiles. "Feel like a walk? It's still early, and it's a lovely night. We could go up to Schenley Park."

I mentally check the status of my ankle. The throbbing is hardly noticeable. "I'm supposed to stay off my feet," I reply, smiling into his eyes, "but it's very tempting."

"We won't go far. And if your ankle begins to bother you, we'll turn back."

We leave the car at the edge of the park and stroll along the paths to the crest of the hill. We seem to have the place to ourselves. New leaves whisper on the oak branches that arch over our heads. The spring air is like wine. It seems totally natural that we should be holding hands. I feel my heart quicken as we emerge from the trees and see the lights of the city spread out before us.

This place is breathtaking. The broad lawn slopes downward nearly half a mile. When I was a child, I rode my sled down this incline, screaming with excitement as we gathered speed. Past the grove at the foot, we see the lights of Oakland, violet and orange, and further to the west, nestled between the rivers, the glittering towers of downtown.

The night is moonless, so clear that even with the urban brilliance below, the stars are visible. There is some kind of perfection here. I breathe deeply and feel the knot of tension in my chest soften. Peace, for the first time in two days.

Sometimes, though, my tales demand a locale that's unfamiliar. My recent paranormal release, Serpent's Kiss, takes place in a rural village in Guatemala. “Monsoon Fever”, my contribution to the ménage anthology Brit Party, is set in Assam, India, during the aftermath of World War I. I've never visited either of these places. So how can I write about them?

Curiously, the answer seems to be the same as that which I offered in my post last week: analogy and research. For setting the scene, research is often the more critical aspect. I need to understand the geography, the topography, the climate, and the culture of the place where my story is set. On the other hand, it's difficult to achieve realistic sense impressions without a leap of imagination from what I have experienced to what I have not.

Though Guatemala isn't stamped in my passport, I've traveled in other third-world countries. I know a bit about poverty and lack of opportunity, about the gaps between haves and have-nots, about the ridiculous bureaucracy that seems to exist in inverse proportion to a country's level of development. I've lived through monsoons in lands other than India, and so I can imagine watching a deluge on an isolated tea plantation in colonial Assam:

The rain drops are Lakshmi’s tears. That is what Lalida had said—tears of pity wept by Vishnu’s consort at the sad state of mankind. From the sheltered veranda, Priscilla watched sheets of rain sweep relentlessly across the land. The silver curtain alternately hid and revealed the shapes of the green hills rising in the distance.

Priscilla swallowed the last of her biscuit and leaned back in the rattan chair, drawing her shawl around her shoulders. She knew, from the past week’s experience, that the downpour would end in a few hours. The lush wet bushes would sparkle in the sun, as though someone had scattered handfuls of jewels over their leaves. For now, the muted hues of the landscape matched her mood.

The passage above illustrates an important point about settings in fiction. The primary role of the setting is to provide a physical and emotional context for the characters and their stories. The first two paragraphs from "Monsoon Fever", quoted above, do more than set the scene or draw pretty word pictures. The rainy world that Priscilla surveys from her porch mirrors her emotional state. She is perplexed, lonely and frustrated. In this story, the climate also triggers aspects of the plot, creating unexpected situations that cause the characters to change and grow.

In some fiction, the setting itself becomes a narrative force. Consider a horror tale about a haunted house. The evil-infested dwelling is more than just the environment in which the characters exist. It becomes the prime motivator for their actions.

It's easy to fall in love with description for its own sake. This is a pitfall for many authors, including me. I become so involved in building a vivid, believable world, I lose sight of its role in framing, shaping and driving the characters and their behavior. Well-crafted description of the setting, carefully entwined with paragraphs that reveal character and conflict, will enhance a tale, but many a story has floundered under the weight of excess detail about the setting.

It's a delicate balance. It's not uncommon for me to encounter tales in both the erotica and romance genres that don't provide enough background for me to guess where they take place. I tend to find such stories flat and two-dimensional, even when the characters are engaging. On the other hand, I've also slogged through page after page of descriptive text, trying futilely to discover the relationship between this verbiage and the characters' lives.

Practice and vigilant editing are both required in order to avoid these two extremes. Still, I wonder whether some authors could even tell me where their stories were set, if I asked them. As for me,I find myself considering the question of setting very early in the creative process. Where are these characters from? Where do they meet? How does their physical world influence who they are and what they think? Until I can answer these questions, my story goes nowhere. (I find it interesting that I have much clearer notions of where my characters are located than what they look like.)

Authors differ, I think, in their attention to setting the scene. I'm sure that my relatively rich travel experiences have made me particularly attuned to issues of place. I'm waiting eagerly to hear what the other Grip members have to say on this topic.


  1. Your pictures and your written imagery are lovely, Lisabet. I'm not a traveler, so my scenery is not as integral to my stories as yours might be. I do use what a I know about certain places, and use it often. LOL More about that tomorrow.

    Great post!

  2. Hey, Jenna,

    Thanks for your comments. You're probably right - the fact that I love to travel has undoubtedly influenced my writing, kindling a desire to incorporate some of those experiences.

    Oh, and all the photos in my post are from our own peregrinations: Lisbon, Bangkok, and rural Thailand.


  3. Hi Lisabet,

    I think I'm at the other end of the spectrum to you on this. I very rarely find myself worrying about location when I'm reading a book.

    As long as the feel is right, I'm not so concerned with where the characters find their happy ending. It's great to hear about other writers approaches.

    Take care,

    Kim Dare.

  4. Well, you know what they say: if it works, don't fix it! And I do really enjoy your writing. I'm hoping to get the chance to review "Silent Night", which has a fabulous premise.


  5. Thanks Lisabet. It would be great to hear what you think of Hannah and Vincent :)

    Kim Dare.

  6. One of the great things about books and stories is that through them, readers can escape to other worlds. Setting is that important, and when tied in with characterization and plot, such worlds truly come alive.