Sunday, December 6, 2009

The value of setting

Yesterday I reflected upon first chapters, and today I thought I'd ruminate on something equally as important (and often daunting) and pivotal to the success of any story: setting.

The right setting will make or break a book.

When I first started my book, before chick lit existed, some of my characters worked in fashion, primarily so they could wear cool clothes and go to Paris. Yes, this was a 'deep' decision. Without any knowledge of the TGV or basic transportation system in France, I decided that the main female character would frequent the Strasbourg area to visit her German aunt. (I don't even remember if the aunt lived in France or Germany.) The bad guy now was just a love interest then and he lived in Germany selling antiques and making stained glass.

As the story changed and the fashion grew more pivotal, Paris became the obvious setting. But even after I had spent time in Paris (about a month), the city remained illusive in my writing. She seemed nothing more than a shadow of herself. Another contributing factor was the obvious realization that I speak French, not German. Along the lines of the old adage 'write what you know'... I find myself often fighting with my story. Why on Earth would I do anything in Germany when I'm a Francophile?

So, to avoid a two-dimensional Paris, I gave the fashion house a New York office. Problem solved right? I've spent lots of time in New York. I can create an accurate New York. Nope. My New York is a day-trip New York. Yes, I have traveled the subways, the cabs, and different neighborhoods, but I have never lived there.

My story continued to stumble and limp because New York didn't work. But how could I fix that? I couldn't move to New York (ah, but what an idea!).

I gave the main characters a weekend house in rural Pennsylvania. And it happens to be the house I grew up in. Rural Upper Mount Bethel Township. River Road. Half way between Tuscarora Inn and Driftstone Campground. Now these rich Parisians have mounted substantial renovations to the humble farmhouse where I lived... but that's also something I dreamed about as a kid, "fixing" the dilapidated house my parents rented.

But I didn't stop there. The bad guy lives in the outskirts of the school district where I live now. I can drive you down his road.

The characters visit the familiar country bar where I've been a million times.

The story soared.

Have I abandoned New York and Paris? No. Office scenes in a New York Italianate brownstone. Basilie has a fabulous apartment in the Ansonia. (And another fabulous apartment on the Place des Vosges in Paris, which we never see until book three, I think.) The office in Paris. Étienne's Ile St. Louis townhouse. But most of the story, at least 70 percent I'd say, happens in Pennsylvania.

I never thought I'd find a feasible reason for my artistic French character to be in rural Pennsylvania, but when you think about the geography of France, it makes sense. France is primarily rural and their towns are very small. Cities and small towns. Very few medium sized towns. If Étienne wished to leave the city, which he hates because it is not Paris, where would he go? Pennsylvania. And at the time he bought the old farmhouse, he probably paid $120,000 for it which is downright laughable to him. His car cost $250,000.

Never underestimate the setting.

I had a similar problem with book two of my series. I kept trying to open with the bad guy and the good guy working together in New York. My husband kept asking me WHY would the bad guy agree to work for the good guy instead of just killing him? After years of resisting, and the rejection of my critique group, I moved them to neutral territory: the country bar. Where they could casually run into each other.

And then, after their scene, I got to offer this (first draft) depiction of my former home:

"River Road originated on other side of the Portland-Columbia toll bridge. Cross the railroad tracks, pass the coal-fired electrical generator, and follow the Delaware River another four miles and there stood Étienne’s weekend house, a renovated 18th century farmhouse he had purchased as a getaway for his wife. He had spent a year with the architects and contractors overseeing the transformation from crumbling relic to country estate. His idea of a romantic hideaway didn’t quite materialize, since Adelaide sliced her wrists in the master bathroom occurred less than a month after the official housewarming.
He drove his wife’s sedan past Jules’ Volkswagen Touareg to the upper end of the driveway, parking right beside the massive deck that spanned from the house to the three car garage. The crisp air burned Étienne’s lungs. The dark sky showed a breathtaking magnitude of stars and across the street, the river lapped at its banks with a rhythm as reassuring as that of a old woman’s rocking chair. His breath materialized in foggy wisps, but the chill didn’t bother him (except for his protesting leg) because the first day of February in Pennsylvania couldn’t match the bitter damp of winter in Paris.
Climbing the stairs slowly, he lingered on the deck, chasing constellations across the horizon. The pain in his face subsided a bit in the coldness, and he knew he should head into the house and ice his wounds, but something about the night felt good and quieted his soul. The lights from the kitchen spilled into the cedar entryway, casting gold across the deck from the large window and the portes-fenêtres."


  1. I posted a comment already, but I don't think it worked...trying again:)

    I love your thoughts here, Angel, about writing. Your writing is,also, very sharp. I want to read more of your story.


  2. Thanks, Tiffani. I'm sure more snippets of my work will pop up here and if you someday find yourself with free time, I'll let you read the total manuscript.