Oh, the places you’ll go. ~Dr. Seuss
My absolute favorite books—fiction or nonfiction—are ones that transport me to another place. James Herriot’s Yorkshire. Ignatius J. Reilly’s New Orleans. Twain’s Mississippi. The authors brought these places to life and we remember them. It’s not only because these stories are classics. I’d venture to say that they are classics partly because they evoke the setting in a captivating way.
Setting is the Goldilocks element of any good story. It should find a nice balance between not too much, not too little, settling on just right. Selecting the right details pulls me into the characters’ world. Most readers want to find common emotional ground with the main character, and that is an important first step. But if I can imagine myself there—hiking the PCT alongside Cheryl Strayed or onboard the Wilhelm Gustloff as it sinks, I will remember specifics about that story for a long time to come.
The location informs the characters. People are not the same everywhere. The weather, landscape, architecture, foods, flora, and fauna all serve to inform the culture. It’s why you might feel comfortable in Amsterdam but not Alaska, Santa Fe, New Mexico but not Santa Fe, Argentina.
Come along as we travel at the invitation of three authors. First, Ann Patchett takes us to the Amazon in State of Wonder.
At dusk the insects came down in a storm, the hard-shelled and soft-sided, the biting and stinging, the chirping and buzzing and droning, every last one unfolded its paper wings and flew with unimaginable velocity into the eyes and mouths and noses of the only three humans they could find. Easter [the name of a character] slipped back inside his shirt while Dr. Swenson and Marina wrapped their heads like Bedouins in a storm. When it was fully dark only the misguided insects pelted themselves into the people on board while the rest chose to end their lives against the two bright, hot lights on either side of the boat. The night was filled with the relentless ping of their bodies hitting the glass.
Next, we stop at a tenement apartment in Brooklyn with eleven-year-old Kim and her mother, freshly arrived from China.
A thick layer of dust covered the small kitchen table and wide sink, which was white and pitted. As I walked, I tried to avoid the brittle bodies of the dead roaches scattered here and there. They were huge, the thick legs delineated by the harsh shadows…
The walls were cracked, bulging in places as if they had swallowed something, and in some spots, the paint layer had flaked off altogether, exposing the bare plaster like flesh under the skin.
Despite its bareness, this room stank of old sweat. In the corner, a double mattress lay on the floor. It had blue and green stripes and was stained. There was also a low coffee table with one leg that didn’t match, on which I would later do my homework, and a dresser that was shedding its lime paint like dandruff. That was all.
I hugged myself with my arms. “Ma, I want to go home,” I said.
Lastly let’s go to Versailles with Alain Baraton, master gardener there for forty years, as he deals with the aftermath of a terrible storm.
Two young beech trees I had recently planted had been among the first to go. They were now smothered under the mass of a fallen cherry tree. My trees, once so orderly and upright, were now tangled and piled up on one another in painful chaos. They lay in agony, their roots naked and suffering, exposed to the air in a position I couldn’t help but find shocking. The laws of nature, which usually seemed so clement and productive, had been swept away in a climactic upheaval that had lasted only a few hours. Another revolution had struck the subjects of Versailles, and those “subjects” (as we often refer to individual trees in French) were going to die. They had been taken away in the space of a night and there was nothing I could do about it. Deprived of the garden’s protection, the palace itself suddenly seemed fragile.
Heart racing, I headed to Versailles’s botanical treasure chest, the Queen’s Hamlet. The surroundings had changed so dramatically that I had trouble finding my way. Nothing familiar had survived. The trees that once guided visitors through the garden were unrecognizable. Some of them lay on the ground; others had been displaced or crushed by their neighbors. Even the road was gone. In its place lay a field of mud where my boots sank to the calf.
Have books brought you to any memorable places recently?
Writers: I will be teaching an online seminar on setting and description this fall. More details to come soon.
Have a great weekend, everyone!