Been thinking about setting a bit lately – why it matters, how it ought to work, and, for those of us setting our stories in real places, how faithful we need to be to reality.
I’m thinking back to my early attempts at drafting my debut novel, PENANCE (coming April 30 to a bookstore near you from the good people at Exhibit A). I used to get hung up on setting, let it bog me down and hold up the drafting process for weeks at a time.
The book’s set in Chicago, which is a pretty Catholic town. A lot of people here, you ask them where they’re from, they tell you what parish they grew up in. I’ve lived in the Chicago area my whole life, worked in the city for thirty years, live in the city now. I know it pretty well. When I started writing the book, though, the thing was this. The book opens with a women being shot stepping out of a Catholic church. But she’s being shot from a long way off – half a mile or so off. I knew the neighborhood where I wanted the shooting to take place. But I didn’t know it with the level of intimacy the scene required, at the parish level, at the level where I could picture the church in my mind, knew where the shooter would be standing, could write the scene with confidence, write it the way I like to write it, where I can picture my characters moving around on a setting familiar to me.
I wasted a lot of time poking around on Google Earth, looking at this church and that, trying to find one that would be just right, one that had the architectural vibe I wanted, that was in the neighborhood I wanted, that offered the line of sight I needed for my shooter. Thing is, I knew that, even if I found one that looked right on line, I was still going to have to drive over there, eyeball the place. And it wasn’t the only church someone was going to get shot at. I was going to have to do all of that all over again.
And there were all the other settings – the police station the protagonist works out of, the building where he lives, and on and on and on.
Reality is what the story needs it to be
Then I had an epiphany. It didn’t matter. Because this wasn’t journalism. It wasn’t history. It was a story with made up people and made up events. A story set against the backdrop of a real city but that takes place in my imagination – and, eventually, in the reader’s imagination. It borrows from the city’s history, and, when it does, it’s my job to get that history right. It sometimes is set in real places, and, when it is, I have to get the details straight. But the Chicago of my novel is really a kind of parallel universe – a place recognizable as the real city, largely faithful to the details of it, always faithful to my idea of it, but re-imagined in the ways necessary to make the story possible.
That epiphany was liberating. What I owed the city was fidelity to a sense of place, of culture. But I didn’t have to get bogged down in specificity. I could make up a church and drop it into a real Chicago neighborhood. I could make up all the churches (although each of them is based on a church I actually know). I could make Chicago’s Chinatown perhaps a little larger, a little grander than it is in real life. That police station? I never say where it is exactly, because it doesn’t really matter. When I do set something in a real place, then I do my best to get that place right. But the story is the master. Where I have to choose between story and setting, the story wins.
One of the reasons I’ve never wanted to write fantasy or any other genre that requires world building is all the work that entails – having to imagine every detail of setting, and then having to establish all of the rules, cultural and otherwise, for how the beings and settings of that world interact.
To me, that feels like a lot of work, especially when I have such a great city right here at my fingertips, where all those details and rules are already set. What I’ve learned, though, is this: all I need is the gestalt of the place, the history of it, the feel of it. As far as specifics go, I steal what real details I like, but otherwise I’m free to play with the city in any way that remains faithful to what Chicago is in my mind.
I suspect that you world builders out there operate more or less the same way – that you have a gestalt in mind, some broad strokes and rules, a unifying field theory if you will. Beyond that, you’re kind of winging it. (I’d be interested to hear from ya’ll, though, having never played that game myself.)
But what should setting do?
All that covers how I deal with the mechanics of writing setting, but it doesn’t cover what setting does. Ideally, it informs the story. I’ve been trying to think how to better define that and I keep coming back to cooking. Say you’re cooking Italian – you’ve picked your meat, you know what veges you want to include, cheeses and whatever. But which sauce? Alfredo? Arribiata? Marinara? I think the setting should be like the sauce, set a baseline of flavor. I tried to keep that in mind when I was writing, and especially when I was rewriting. What could I do to make this not just a story, but a Chicago story?
Here’s a sample of how I think that should work, my reading of a brief scene from early in the book. (Hey, I take any chance I can get to flash my pipes. The ladies love them.)
An audio snippet from PENANCE.
This is a flashback to an event in 1971 that sets much of the plot in motion. An associate of the mayor’s son is in the mayor’s office, fresh from the scene of the murder/suicide involving the mayor’s son and his gay lover. I draw on a couple of famous Chicago landmarks – the mayor’s office on the fifth floor of city hall and the Picasso statue in the plaza immediately to the east. The statue would have been only a few years old in 1971, and my fictional mayor’s reaction to the statue makes it more than just a landmark, a tourist spot that a reader might recognize to cement the scene in place – it tells you about the characters and, in a way, about spirit of the city.
But, to make that work, I had to mess with some details. See, in City Hall in 1971, the city offices were on the west side of the building and the county offices were on the east side. They’ve moved some of the county stuff into the old Brunswick Building across Monroe Street (a building I used to work in years ago), but the mayor’s office is still on the west side of City Hall. The Picasso statue is in the plaza to the east. So I moved the mayor’s office. The feel for the city and the characters that I could achieve by baking the Picasso statue into that scene trumps the requirement to be absolutely faithful to the specifics of the city as they exist in real life. Could I have done something else? Set the scene outside, had Clarke and the mayor walking in the plaza? I could have, but while that would have been more true factually, it felt more false. Say the Fifth Floor to a Chicagoan, and they know exactly what you mean – the mayor’s office, the locus of power. My mayor, in a moment like this, isn’t leaving the inner sanctum to meet you outside. You are going to him. I could be true to the floor plan of a real building or true to the spirit of my own story. I chose the story.
Now, maybe some Chicagoans will take offense when the book comes out, I don’t know. I suppose there will be some guy somewhere that has to point out that I’ve got the mayor’s office on the wrong side of the building, or that there is no Sacred Heart parish where I put one. But I don’t think most will. And I don’t think they should. Writers operate in a shadowy border between what is and what we imagine. That’s the only way this works. For me, it’s the only way it can work.
So what say you? As a reader, how much to you care about fidelity to an actual setting? As a writer, what liberties are you willing to take?