Monday, 13 August 2012

Flash Cards and Fondling - How To Do Setting

I have been working on setting with my students. It's something that some of them have trouble with, particularly when the setting is a part of the contemporary built environment. Somehow if the story is taking place somewhere we're not used to, like an ancient forest, then it's easy; but if it's a shopping mall people assume there's no need for any description.

Some years ago I wanted to write a scene in which two teenagers were having their first date. The girl was epileptic and as a consequence her parents were over-protective. She hadn't told them about this date and she was worried that she might be seen by someone she knew. She was also worried about what the boy would think of her, worried that she wouldn't know what to say to him, worried that if he found out she was epileptic he would be horrified, and worried that she might have a seizure right there in the café.

So there was plenty to focus on. Nevertheless, when I read the scene through it seemed insubstantial. I realised that there was hardly any setting. I'd based the venue on the Haagen Dazs café in London's Leicester Square. So I decided to make a special trip there, for research purposes you understand, not just to pig out on ice cream.

The place was crowded when I arrived and I took the only free seat. To my left was a very smartly dressed young Asian couple and they were snogging. Actually, snogging is not a strong enough word for what they were doing. Utterly oblivious to their surroundings, they were practically eating each other.

On my right, were two young Arab women wearing burkahs. One of them had a shoe box full of home-made flash cards with Arabic words written on them. One by one she was taking the cards out of the box and showing them to her companion who was frowning earnestly as she struggled to pronounce them correctly.

In the twenty minutes I was there a whole procession of characters came in off the street - glowering Goths, noisy tourists, harassed looking parents with over-excited children, even a couple of police officers with a weakness for whipped cream and macadamia nuts.

When I went home and rewrote the scene I put in everything I had seen and this time, of course, there was far too much detail. I had to strip a lot of it out at the next draft but I kept the Asian snoggers and the two young Arab women because they were a gift and because I could never have made them up.

So that's what I've been trying to tell my students. Setting isn't just architecture; it's everything that's going on around your characters.


Paul Lamb said...

I forced myself to spend a long weekend in a small, artsy town on a river, full of antique shops, restaurants, and a winery, staying in a bed and breakfast, all because I set a story in such a place. You really can't fake the details. As tough as it is, you have to do your primary research. I'm thinking about a story on a Caribbean island next.

SolariC said...

I thought your post was really interesting, because I make an effort every time I'm writing a story to visit the place I'm writing about so that I can invest my scenes with a sense of realism. Somehow it's reassuring to know I'm not the only one who finds this helpful!

Brian Keaney said...

Paul, the Caribbean island sounds like a very worthy project. Don't hesitate! Solaric, good to hear from you. That sounds like a good policy. You can't beat observation.

Danladi Inuwa Achimugu said...
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Danladi Inuwa Achimugu said...
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Rhys Ethan said...

I try to do the same thing too. I always make an effort to go to places I describe in my writing. I don't usually take notes. Just being in the place gives me a feel, but when I went to Italy I took so many notes and they're all coming to good use for my second book. Only problem is the second book also includes Carribean, An African Desert and Nepal...Hope i can travel there soon. Anyway, setting is as important as characters and story. You can't engage the reader without these details.
Brian, where do you teach? And can i join? I'd love to be in your class.

Rhys Ethan said...

Hey Brian. Just wanted to let you know I have nominated your lovely blog for a Liebster Award and you can receive it over at my blog with the 11 questions I'd like you to answer. Enjoy your day.

Brian Keaney said...

Thanks for the nomination, Rhys, I will check out your blog. I don't teach on a regular basis, only occasionally. I've just finished two months teaching a summer school at Cambridge University. I'm not going to be doing any more now for a while so that I can concentrate on writing.