Wednesday, April 17, 2019

City vs. country

Aline's post on setting really resonated with me, as did Rick's ode to Notre Dame. I too spend weeks driving around the areas I am writing about, taking photos, dictating observations into my iPhone, and jotting notes at night. Stories take place in time and place, and the vibrancy of the story is directly related to the power of the setting. Settings are not mere backdrops; they evoke feelings - the fear of a dark forest, the excitement of a rushing river, the joy of a sunlit meadow, and the peace of loons on a lake. They can inspire awe. As Rick says, no one walks out of Notre Dame untouched by a sense of overwhelming awe.

Good writers use these feelings as a film director uses music - to wrap the reader in the full experience of the story. The setting can complement or contradict the mood of the story, but it always contributes an effect.

Granite islands in Georgian Bay

Aline makes an interesting point that rural settings may be more powerful in this regard because they are so closely linked to ever-changing nature. A concrete jungle is a concrete jungle, but meadows and forests change with the seasons, the time of day, and the weather. Having written a series set in the city (my Inspector Green series) and another mostly in the country (Amanda Doucette), I do find I am much more immersed in the rural settings. I think about the weather because it affects what the characters will be doing out on the land, how they will feel, and what trouble they might get into. I think about the specific terrain they are travelling through. The rocks they will trip over, the mud they will step in... I think about what the characters see, hear, and smell as they are moving through a scene. If I want the reader to be immersed in the story, I have to describe it for them.

Besides drawing the reader into the story, another interesting job of setting is to reveal character. Different characters notice different things, and what they notice tells a lot about them. For instance, Inspector Green grew up in the dusty back alleys of the inner city with little knowledge or appreciation of nature. He notices the drug deal going down on the corner and the homeless guy who's missing from his spot, but he wouldn't know the name of a bird or flower if his life depended on it. He would never stop to drink in the beauty of a sunset.

Cities have their own power to evoke feelings and atmosphere. Unraked leaves, razor trimmed hedges, peeling paint, gaping potholes, and spectacular peonies or azaleas are all details that evoke vivid impressions. Streets and neighbourhoods have their own smells and sounds too, from the balcony barbecue to the roaring dump truck, and characters react to them differently. Green would barely notice the belching exhaust of a passing bus, but he'd notice the smell of bagels freshly baked.

Each detail draws the reader in, enriches the story, and reveals character. But endless description stops a story dead, especially when the reader is racing toward the climax. The key is to capture a few unique, vivid details that will stand for the whole, much as a painter does when they confront a complex landscape. Choosing those details and cutting out the less powerful are crucial skills of good writing. Or usually re-writing. I often put down a bunch of possible details during the first draft and then pare them down to the most powerful during the second pass.

The hoodoos in the Alberta badlands

So city or country? Which is more complex? I think in the hands of a good writer, the possibilities of both are as endless as the details to be captured. Perhaps we have to work a little harder when writing rural settings because readers may be less familiar with them and have fewer memories of their own to help them become immersed in the scene. In that way, a high-rise is a high-rise and a belching bus is a belching bus, but if you've never been to the islands of Georgian Bay or the badlands of Alberta, you're going to need some help.

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