Musings

[Blog] Regionalism

Way back in high school, we had a unit where we studied American literary regionalism. (Click here for the Wikipedia article, if you’re curious!) I remember it being interesting, and our teacher tied it in with the idea that the setting of a story, when properly done, can be as much a character as any of the ones walking around on two legs. At the time, I thought it was a fascinating idea, but didn’t quite get it– certainly not enough to be able to articulate it all that well.

If I’m honest, that might still be true today, though I’m certainly closer than I was. At the very least, I’m close enough to start coming up with some theories of my own. In particular, considering how it relates to the ubiquitous advice to “write what you know”.

Now, as you can imagine, us science fiction and fantasy authors have a harder time applying that advice in its most boring sense. I’ve never been a freelancer on a distant planet, but that’s not stopping me from writing about a couple of siblings who do, so some folks might suggest that I’m not taking that advice to heart. That being said, I am one of several siblings, and I can guarantee that I’ve got the sibling banter thing down pat, so in that sense I am writing what I know.

Now, imagine you’ve got a locale you’re particularly familiar with. For me, that could be the Palouse area of Idaho and Washington: farming country, with lots of hills and fertile soil and not so many people. Next, add in the fantasy, magic, and adventure that I particularly enjoy writing about. Combine the two, and and you’re going to get a modern fantasy story set in the hills I grew up in. Probably involving werewolves.

Or, for those of you who watch Angel, you’ve got the same sort of thing with Los Angeles. It’s definitely set in LA… there’s just vampires and demons as well.

Basically, using a region that you’re familiar with is a fantastic way to write what you know– because as poor as that advice is when applied badly, you can’t get around the fact that it does have some truth to it. If you know something, you’re going to be able to write about it better. If, like me, you’re more the type who likes writing science fiction and fantasy, that’s probably going to look more like writing about relationships between friends and family than the the mundane adventures of a twenty-something-year-old. But it can also mean setting those same stories about the relationships you know in the places you know. Because it’ll make the story that much more real.

Musings

[Blog] Green to Gold

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The mountains where I live are starting to fade. The last good spring rain was weeks ago, and while the hills haven’t yet grown brown and dry, they’re also not as bright and giddily green as they were at the beginning of the month. It changes the way I look at the landscape and reminds me that I do live in a desert of sorts.

It’s also part of why I know that the setting/weather can be an incredibly effective tool in writing. One that I’m usually really bad at using. Not so much in short stories (mine, at least) that take place over a shorter period of time, but when you get something novel-length, having the seasons or the climate change over the course of the story can add some awesome depth to the themes and conflict.

Think The Lion King and the way the Pridelands change. You might argue that it’s a bit heavy handed (not sure I could argue against that, per se) but it’s definitely effective. If I remember right, that particular example also works within the framework that used the state of the kingdom to reflect on its ruler; if the ruler was wicked or ill, the land itself would be sick and poor. Like I said: maybe a little heavy handed, but it certainly gets the point across.

All this is to say that I think I’m finally starting to understand what my high school English teachers were trying to say when they said that a good setting is like another character in the story. It’s got its own arc and it affects the story itself. And if you think about it, that not so far fetched. I dare any of you to tell me that you’ve never had things changed by the weather.

Musings

[Blog] Place Magic

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When thinking about the most important aspects of a story, the first things that come to mind are plot and character– the things that happen and who makes them happen. And to some extent, that’s entirely true. The characters we meet in a piece of fiction and the journeys we take with them are what make our favorite stories so compelling. But perhaps there’s a third part that is just as important to a good story: the setting.

It’s entirely possible that this is common knowledge, and I’m just a little late to the game. Even so, I think it’s fair to say that we tend to focus a bit more on the two elements that I mentioned first. Stories are retold in different settings all the time– think Shakespeare’s plays– and, at least when we like how it turns out, we don’t have any problem saying that it’s still the same story. As long as the plot and the characters remain the same, it’s easy to say that the story is fundamentally the same.

Of course, the fact that so many of the Bard’s plays have been retold and given a different location in time or space serves as evidence that the setting is a large part of what makes each particular story what it is. If it didn’t, there wouldn’t be any point in changing it in the first place. When Hamlet’s tragedy plays out in a modern day setting as opposed to medieval Denmark, different aspects stand out. One might expect to encounter a ghost in a drafty castle, but if that same ghost stalks the halls of a twentieth century military base he might seem a little more out of place, and even though the characters will ultimately react in more or less the same way in a faithful retelling, the incongruity draws our attention.

That’s a specific example, but the point holds true: a story might tell how a scrappy hero rises from nothing and fights to topple an oppressive dystopia, but if the story is set in a fantasy world with swords and magic, it would have a different theme than if the events played out on a space station in the distant future. The first describes what we are capable of doing to each other. The second makes a similar point, but also makes sure that we know that it’s not something relegated to a barbarous past.