Yet another of my long-overdue university out-takes. Following is an answer to a question about establishing place and setting for stories, that I wrote several months ago for one of my writing subjects.
I moved back to my parents’ house after being away for many (Read: MANY) years and I’m now living in the room I had as a teenager. Rather than get maudlin, as I did when I first moved in, I now like to see it as a new start—a fresh beginning. Or a stopover on the long, world-weary road of incomprehensible mid-life. Take your pick.
But it’s the nostalgia of the place that grabs me every time. I look out the window to see a family of rabbits picking amongst the emerald remains and hear the continual hum and click-clack-clicking of rail wheels on the tracks beyond. Every time my toes feel the knobbed woollen carpet that’s been here for so many years: still in good nick, just a little wear, but a bit flatter (like me); every time I look at my parent’s smiling faces, all wrinkles and sunshine (they obviously haven’t had to put up with me for long); every time I walk the old streets remembering handball at the bus stop and ducking swooping magpies in the spring, the scent of rain on the grass flats and long, sweat-soaked summers without a pool. Like the murky rooftops and telegraph poles marking time in the distance, it’s a wary combination of old and new, making me dream of yesterday, moan about today and hope for tomorrow.
It got me thinking about how place has such a dramatic impact on the stories we write. The story’s setting can become a character as much as the protagonist and antagonists. But it’s more than just atmosphere or setting specifics. It’s all in the way the setting evokes something that connects with the reader—maybe they can relate to it in the way something felt or looked, or smelt. Maybe they marked time for a while in a sunny backwater, too.
Recasting familiar settings for stories works. We take what we know and we forge it into something new. Authenticity is something I’ve discussed with a writer friend of mine. I always say (and I’m sure others have said this, too): “the reader knows when you fake it”. It doesn’t matter if the setting you’ve created is in the far future, your home town or a fantasy kingdom, it’s the feeling that you put into it, driven by your own experiences and emotions, that makes the difference. Lord of the Rings wouldn’t be the same if JRR Tolkien didn’t infuse the setting with not only his expansive research in languages and mythology, but also his love of the countryside he grew up in.
I find that I tend to rely more on recall than on visits to and notes about areas, but I’m lucky that I have a decent memory. And we all have an extensive lifetime of experiences—sights, smells, emotions, nostalgia—to build our settings with.
Every story we write, we build a place to call our own.