My favorite novel of the past ten years is almost certainly Light Boxes by Shane Jones. I love it for all sorts of reasons, too many to name, not the least of which being its ability to make me feel like I’m deeply inhabiting its setting. And this is all the more impressive when you factor in that Light Boxes is a surrealistic text. Little of what happens in this book is possible under the known laws of physics and rationality. Yet when I read it, I feel like I’m there. I feel like I’m in snowbound. I feel like I’m one of the villagers in this town that cannot exist, part of a war effort waged against the month of February, which casts a long shadow over their lives, and refuses to end.
I feel this because Jones’ prose emphasizes the tangible. He highlights the physical. Part fabulist, part poet, he uses simple, direct language to draw the reader’s attention to equally simple and direct elements, which he often repeats. A kind of rhythm develops. Again and again we see balloons, snow, clouds, birds, moss, honey, smoke. These are simple, tangible building blocks, yet they come together to build a rich and fascinating world. Despite a surface-level simplicity, Jones’ world conjures its own kind of complexity through the use of familiar language in unfamiliar contexts, and the depth of feeling this relationship evokes in the reader.
In other words, it turns out you can say a whole lot using very little.
And in my experience most of the more engaging settings in literature tend to do this.
They deemphasize abstractions like street names over that which is tangible. A setting, after all, is supposed to be a place, and places exist beyond names and geographic coordinates. They’re more than even their collective history, as wild and rich as it may be. Like the prose in Jones’ novel, a place is at its core very simple, yet endlessly complex. At heart they’re nothing but the hard fast things of this earth. A place is grass or mud or sand. It is sky. It is weather and rock. A setting is a place, and a place is a vertical slice of seamless three dimensional space; composed of substance, weight, and feeling.
That being said, no setting has actually “reality”, because ultimately all stories are is fiction. A story and its setting are not and can never be the same as events as they happened, or as the world outside your window, because it’s all just language. A story is sound. A story is air. A story is simply words consciously arranged into a meaningful, coherent sequence, and as such, what we call the story’s “setting” is nothing more than a categorical term that applies to all the language that describes its concept of place. It is the idea of weather, memories of flora, the perception of fauna, and how the characters react and exist in relation to it. It is how a body fills a space inside your head.
Let me give you a brief example. Just yesterday I was trying to tell a young Dutch person a little about New Orleans, Louisiana, where I grew up. Now I could have listed streets and landmarks for them, but it wouldn’t have conveyed anything. Most of the names would have been meaningless. Sensations, on the other hand, are universal. And when I remember what it felt like to live in New Orleans, I remember the heat. I remember humidity. I remember the air feeling wet even when there was little chance of rain. I remember walking from one end of campus to another with a piece of paper in my hand, and the paper being slightly damp and wrinkled by the time I got there. I remember stepping out of an air conditioned car, and being slapped upside the head by the heat, and my glasses steaming up so hard and fast I couldn’t see. And so that’s what I told them about.
An awareness of such physical sensations are vital for a writer, because they are the lifeblood of good settings, and believable writing in general.
And now I ask you to think of settings that stayed with you from books you’ve enjoyed in the past. What makes them memorable? Did you feel like you were there, and if so why?
Prompt 1: Describe your current location without using a single proper noun. What does this place feel like? What do you see, on the most basic level? What do you feel, and what associations does this bring up for you? Once you’ve mapped out the place you’re in, tell me where your mind goes from there.
Prompt 2: Sometimes forcing different elements together will result in something new and exciting. It’s a great way of opening up new creative avenues to explore. Take two relatively benign settings, ones that would under normal circumstances not fit together, and write about what happens when they collide. Remember to focus on tangible sensations. Try to realistically evoke an impossible place. Tell me how it feels to wander a hedge maze on the moon? What goes through the mind of someone selling ice cream in the middle of a desert? What is life like when you work in an office building built on the ocean floor?
Bob Schofield is an American writer of British, Chinese, Pakistani, and Egyptian descent. He currently lives in the Netherlands. He is the author and illustrator of The Inevitable June, Man Bites Cloud, and Moon Facts. He likes what words and pictures do. He wants to be a ghostly presence in your life.