It has struck me this past month or so how important a setting is for a story. This probably makes me sound quite stupid. I mean, it’s an obvious thing to say, settings are important – they are one of the key elements of any story – but I think to date I have taken my settings a little for granted in the mix.
Put it this way, and perhaps to use a cliché, if Characters, Plot and Setting were siblings then I think I’d have to say that the eldest would be Plot – the bossy one in charge, driving everyone in what they do. Characters would be the middle child – full of complexity, variation and possibility, not inhibited by anyone or anything, and a good challenge to Plot! And Setting would be the slightly quieter younger sibling, the one who takes it all in, and does things her own way, without any fuss, perhaps without anyone even particularly noticing.
When I wrote My Second Life and What I Couldn’t Tell You I started with an idea – what if you were a girl who’d lived before and had done something bad in your first life? What if you suffered with Selective Mutism – you were a girl who couldn’t speak freely everywhere – but a story gave you the voice you so badly needed? And from there I developed a character and a plot, and in my mind this is what drove both of my stories.
Settings for both books came easily – they came initially from the memory of places that I’d been to before, but that I didn’t know too well. So there is a viaduct fairly close to where I used to live, and I used this viaduct for the opening scene of What I Couldn’t Tell You. But I used it only as a starting point, and then I developed my setting from there using my imagination.
However now, I am working on a new story, and this story has started with me writing about a place that I know very well, a place I have spent a lot of time throughout my life, and as a result I am reflecting rather differently on Setting in the mix.
Because once I started writing about this place I know so well I was struck by the amount of visual detail I had about it in my memory. It was like it was all logged in my brain just waiting for an opportunity to come out. And in writing about it, it has given me tone and atmosphere for my story in the most incredible way. It has given my story tension and a sense of beauty – things that I didn’t necessarily expect – and my plot and my characters have simply followed from there.
So here is a change – Setting has, it seems, set up my story for me, and to some extent it is driving it, and whilst I am at first draft stage, a stage that I find fairly daunting, this setting has anchored me in the most welcome way. So three cheers for the quiet younger sibling and her guiding hand! And in the future, Setting, I’ll not be quite so quick to take you so much for granted. And I’ll also kindly remind myself, as I do now, that each time I write I am learning about the process, and this is big part of the joy of writing itself.