Wow, that previous post took up some space, didn’t it? This one’s a bit easier. We’ve got our idea, themes, moods and characters. Now the thing to focus on is setting. Where is the story and why does that matter?
The story has to take place somewhere, so getting a fix on where is a great thing. I like to draw a little map, yes, like the ones in the front of fantasy books. The map serves as my own internal sense of continuity. While novels aren’t a visual medium in the same way as comics or film, the reader creates the world in their mind’s eye. If you can keep the internal consistency of your work, the reader will be reading the story instead of trying to figure out how Character A is in the library and then across town in the next scene when only two minutes have passed. It sounds like I’m simply safeguarding against nitpickers, people who go out of their way to find the flaws, but even more casual readers will register that something’s a bit off. Suddenly your world isn’t as believable. As a writer, my instinct is to say that fact always loses out against plot, but the audience won’t always think like that.
While you don’t have to know where everything is, a rough geographical layout is a good idea. In fact, I’d say it’s better than a 100% precise map. You can still keep empty spaces to add, I don’t know, a chicken ranch, when you need to. That way you’re still in charge, but know roughly what’s where in relation to each other.
In Point of Departure, the location was an airport departure lounge on a small, unnamed Greek island. I picked the location after seeing the yellowed, disused-looking airport in Kefalonia in 2004. It looked like the place which would be a nightmare to be stuck in. Then I stripped it out, mentally. The airport in my novel looks totally different as I worked out the geography to fit the character needs (or, more truthfully, to deny them such needs). This was one where a precise map was great. I knew where all 15 of the cast were, and while 90% of them would hear every conversation, there were nooks hidden throughout the location. The only other location was the hotel they’d all stayed at on their way to the airport and the nothing between the airport and it. There wasn’t really a need to map that out or think about it ahead of time. The same with the handful of short flashbacks a few cast members had.
In Lightning, the core location existed for years, much like the cast, so I filled in needs according to the characters and eventually drew a map from there. I think I still have the original on file. Bill needed his home, a hospital and a golf course. Luke needed the shack his family lived in, the school, a place or two to hang out with Lena. Buzz needed his coffee/book shop, the gym, the Parker family home and so on. With a few locations for each character, planned out according to vague scenes I wanted to use, I could make a map of the island community they live on. The secluded nature of Fate Cove helped, as well as deciding that it was a tourist have made to look a lot older than it was. That meant retirement communities, places for people to sail, golf, a nice pedestrianised shopping district, hotels by the beach, and so on. The site created itself once enough was made. I decided to make the geographical location of Lightning indistinct. In theory it could be anywhere. Any mention of currency is left without a denomination, any details of the mainland are simply that it’s not the island. This way, I’ve tried to keep it able to be seen as inhabiting somewhere off the coast of wherever the reader is. Assuming you have a coast, I guess.
London Knights was a good, easy one to physically map out. My first book set in a real location, as the name shows. My knowledge of London isn’t amazing, so I called on my brother for help. He’s lived there for years and always has morbid stories to tell. I wanted the mundane and the strange to mix, so I used some locations I knew about, some my brother told me tall tales of, and had a few ‘set pieces’ prepared. The cast’s headquarters, such as it is, was based on a skanky video shop in Brighton’s Lewes Road, now long gone, placed in a nondescript part of London where Izzy Gardener has her enchanted forest hidden in the garden, and watches a troll in a suit go to work every day.
This year’s book is set in a purposefully nondescript West Texas town, with warm winds and a vast expanse of nothing all around. I created the map below, not a physical map, but one showing the relationships between locations, much like the cast. The main setting is, of course, the school. Then everything else gravitates around it, some of those picking up their own little satellite locations such as the suburbs and then the specific homes of the cast. The Road Out has the box stores, Planet Hell, the drive-in, the water tower. A bunch of these might never see use. They might be seen in the background, but I know where everything is, physically. That helps me ground the action and with any luck, give as much of a sense of character to Greenville as I will the cast.
THE MEANING OF LOCATION
You can play with the location to represent Themes and Moods, or to frame the story in a specific place. You can have a strange setting for a simple story, and it makes it kind of unique. For instance, Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics are charming tales of personal interactions between people, but they’re framed in science fiction which spans aeons, galaxies, time, space and dimensions. The juxtaposition of the setting and the content make a unique series of stories.
The setting is the most physical manifestation of the theme and mood aside from the author simply saying, “I’m talking about privatisation.”
In Point of Departure I use yellow-tinted windows, long shadows and stifling heat to help bring a creepy feeling to what could be an easy stay in an airport. Everything’s closed, the departure board is missing, there’s litter, but no other sign of life. The benches and seats are hard, providing no comfort for the characters, and the lights have no direct controls, turning on or off automatically. The airport is its own character, not prepared for these refugees, and hateful of them.
In Lightning, colour has a heavy presence. The three core families have their own colour schemes to denote who is who, reminding the audience and providing thematic colour packages. The Parker family have the “sea and sand” style, all whites, blues and yellows. To reflect that this is the story of Parkers primarily, the island fits that. The bright blues of the prismatic sea and the cloudless sky, the whites of the faux-Mediterranean homes. The sun is always out and bright unless drama dictates otherwise. Writing it, I could imagine lens-flare. It’s so bright and hopeful, but when the storms come, they’re purposefully over the top. Lightning is a melodrama, emotions run hotter than in my other books, and the environment fits this.
In London Knights, the dichotomy between the strange and the mundane means that both have to be dialled up to eleven. The normal aspects are more grey, square, mundane. Then when we see the magic, everything becomes bright, strange. It’s magic red in tooth and claw, with flashes of colour, of light, even of textures which shouldn’t be there. One specific location element is a ‘moment’. Ghosts are like a scar of a bad event, the moments are good ones, filling an area with bright energy, healing and even more magic than the rest of the world. Izzy’s garden in the video shop is a moment, and the Tower of London Station had one. They’re a glimpse into that point in time, making everything a little more abstract while you’re inside. There were points in the book where both sides collided, such as Little Wonderland, the estate where the creatures who couldn’t get on with the rest of the city lived, or the goblins, almost all settled into the world they’ve ended up in. There’s not a sense of one life being better than the other with the setting of Knights, even though I’ve described the normal world as mundane and grey. The brightness, the red, the magic and the blood, it’s fascinating, but too dangerous. You can fly too close to it, like Icarus.
THIS YEAR’S PROJECT
I’ve already mentioned that this year’s project will be set in Greenville, West Texas. It’s like another world there, even to Americans, according to one in my writing group. It’s a strange place. This year has seen a lot of influences from that area, such as The Mountain Goats’ “All Hail West Texas” and my recent love of Friday Night Lights. Looking into the area, it had the right connotations that I wanted, and the right backdrop.
Greenville is a town built after railroads were a thing, but before anything good. It’s divided out into a wealthy neighbourhood and a poorer one, meaning one shops at Target, the other at Wal-Mart. My location map centred around the school and the way out. I went through the rough scenes I’d thought of and added the locations of each of them, divided the kids’ homes between the neighbourhoods and started adding interesting places. I don’t know if all of them will be used, but here is the ‘map’ I created of Greenville.
The school has a football field, of course. I want that next to a graveyard which will be featured in early scenes, to the mall so the kids have somewhere to go during the day and the hospital, because that’s going to have to be used in the book. From there I wanted a gun shop and the place Tyler & Luis work at in the mall. As my nod to the Fiasco High School setting, I made their workplace, “The Chicken Hut”.
With “The Road Out” there are a few more sites. The Box Stores are where most people shop now (what was Main Street in the town itself is pretty much just boarded up now). There’s a water tower as a background prop, but is unlikely to be used as a site for a scene unless an idea pops into my head. Planet Hell is a sofa in the great expanse of nothingness, old and tattered. No one took it away, and now it’s as good a landmark as any for kids to drink at. None of them can legally drink yet, but most can legally (provisionally) drive and some can even have firearms (thank you Texas Gun Law). The headquarters for the cast will be something I wrote down just for the hell of it, “The Corpse of a Drive-In”. Originally the junkyard was going to be where the group would meet up with Ed Herek, but I thought this would be visually more distinct. I thought the dead drive-in would be a good sign of obsolescence, the decay which surrounds the town, and something the kids never even had the chance to experience.
I drove myself near mad watching Larry Clark and Gus Van Sant to get the desolation of the setting down, but that’s a tool. It tells us that this is a desperate place, and that everyone wants out, especially these kids. It’s a tool for that. This story could go far nastier and darker, but I don’t want that, I’m still aiming for Coen, not for Ken Park. Ugh, that film. There’s a way to lose hope in life. So not that, despite the bleached out locations. The characters will be what makes it strange, more than the location (look at Fargo as an example of such a use of both odd characters & bleak setting).
So that’s a quick look at the setting and what it can do, including how I plan to use it this year. I hope that’s helped. In the final parts, we look at the plot and the scenes, now we’ve got the materials to fill it up with.
MY NANOWRIMO PAGE: http://nanowrimo.org/en/participants/charlie-x