It is February 13th, seventh of the last, I am nearly twenty, and the prompt is the one from September 2012: “How much does setting affect your novels and stories? What are some of your favorite ways to portray setting?”
Wow. Obviously, setting stories in the Star Wars Galaxy, during the twilight years of the Republic, has a huge impact on what happens, what characters and events are available, and so on. And while there’s Baral Favain and occasional forays into this Realaxy and Starlight and stuff… yeah, I mostly do Star Wars.
Since I really only started writing shareable stories after I moved to the UK (and found out that the local library had a dedicated Star Wars section), a lot of my settings form a kind of diary of where I was traveling at the time. In other words… I have met places so beautiful, or so substantial, that I couldn’t not include them in a story, and often ended up writing a twist into something solely to accommodate a piece of architecture.
The Priory – which, you may have noticed, is rather a favorite setting with me – is Lindisfarne Priory, on the Holy Isle off the coast of Scotland. And yes, that fireplace exists, and yes, the wall is very thick, but no, there is no secret tunnel.
On Loan‘s Mereaux (very confusing – say it meh-ROE) is named after Wimereux, the French village closest to Mereaux’s real-life counterpart, which is a gîte in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region where I spent one of the happiest weeks of my life. Incidentally, while the cornfields they walk through on the way there are only a few miles from the gîte, the creek where Corri takes Obi-Wan to watch birds is nowhere near Wimereux, being in fact a swimming-hole on the Utahina Stream in Rotorua. That particular tree has since been cut down – which raises my other favorite point about writing real settings: you can make the places you love most pause in their most glorious moments for all eternity, and no bulldozer or chainsaw or fat English monarch can ever change them.
The tunnels in Breaking Point are, to a great extent, stretches of abandoned gold mine tunnel in Karangahake Gorge. Except for the two chambers full of battle droids: those are Merlin’s Cave under Tintagel in Cornwall, at low tide, and the Aranui Cave at Waitomo.
Mi Amarok’s kitchen, also in Breaking Point, which I originally thought I’d created from scratch, turned out to be the kitchen – and surrounding twisted and split-level hallways – of Townend Farmhouse near Lake Windermere. I get around a lot.
I am absolutely certain I’ve been to that particular street at Laerdocia… the only thing I can’t work out is whether it is in Nuremberg or Munich or possibly even Liverpool… or if I just picked up on the darkness in all three places and blended it together and it spit out a street at me.
The trouble with being a writer who travels – or perhaps a traveler who writes – is that I can never truly leave a place behind. Everywhere I’ve ever been tags along with me, leaving its prints on everywhere I have yet to go. Of course, Blue House procedure being what it is, planning a story usually involves half the cast dragging their favorite haunts along to the location-scouting meeting, and Helena ruthlessly thinning the herd.
A short answer to the first question, then, is: it depends. Sometimes the story chooses what settings will best suit it. Sometimes a setting demands that a story be placed in it. It’s rather like making jewelry, when you put it like that.
(At the moment I’m dealing with pre-production for a rather bolshy Realaxy story demanding to be spread between Loch Lomond, my uncle’s flat in Sydney, the last neighborhood I lived in, and the HMS Belfast. It’s uphill work, more so as the characters don’t like sharing space with Jedi and say they’ll keep scarpering until I finish War Stories. I swear I’m working on it.)
Favorite ways to portray setting is rather vague… I almost never ‘see’ a setting on its own, if that’s any help. For instance: the cantina room in War Stories – 18, in my mind at least, is very definitely more like the hotel room I stayed in in Wellington than it is like the one I stayed in in Welwyn Garden City, but when I was running that scene, I wasn’t really ‘looking’ at it. I was looking, as most people do when they’re watching a movie for the first time, at the characters interacting in the room.
The fact that the room had a window seat (which neither of the real rooms did, by the way) is less important than the fact that Komari was sitting on the window seat. When I re-read the story, I noticed the room. When you read that scene for the first time, you would have noticed the characters, and maybe let your imagination sketch a room around them. If you re-read it, your imagination might fill in some more details, and if you’re watching closely, you might notice it becomes astoundingly like a real hotel room you’ve seen before.
I didn’t describe it at great length, largely because I don’t really care what small, beige, cheaply-carpeted hotel room your imagination chooses to set the scene in. It may not even be beige – if your experience extends mostly to Holiday Inn, it may be purple. I, as the author, don’t care, so long as you are seeing an hotel room, and, more importantly, so long as you are seeing Qui-Gon and Komari quite clearly.
In the previous chapter of War Stories, I did care what you saw when I took you to the courtroom; that’s because what the courtroom looked like was important to the plot. It mattered that you could see how close Nasriel was to the dock, that you could see the judges behind the jury. It mattered that you knew that the gallery steps went down into the corridor, not into the courtroom. It mattered that you could ‘see’ Prosecution and Defense each presenting their case while walking around a few square meters of duracrete like caged tigers, hemmed in on all sides by witness, jury, and accused, and that you could see the lawyers tucked away in their little corrals on either side.
I have no idea what that courtroom would look like when it was empty. Nasriel does, because she’s been in the gallery during a recess and looked down, but I haven’t got a clue. I don’t need to.
I also have no idea what the dojo would look like when it was crowded – which is why anything I do in the dojo is usually done at a quiet time of day, or else on a filthy hot day when nobody wants to be there. While I’m quite capable of seeing the spectators’ gallery crowded, I absolutely cannot fully populate the dojo floor.
So… ways of portraying setting? The first question I ask is does it matter? If not, I’ll tell you roughly what it is, and you can make it up for yourself. The second question is have I, personally, been there before, is this a place I have walked, breathed, picked up stones? If I’ve been there, I know what the air smells like. You would be amazed how valuable that tiny piece of information is – I don’t always include it in so many words, but whenever I can, I make sure I know it. (Mi’s kitchen smells of gingerbread, and wood-smoke, and a funny, dusty smell that I think is bunches of dried herbs, and wet wool, and faintly of turpentine. The kitchen at Townend smells of none of these things.)
Light is very important as well – the third question of setting is what is the light like? Is it bluish, or grayish, or a warm gold like I usually have in the dojo, or a plain white like I usually have in the quarters to avoid having it get in my way, or is it dappled and green, shining down through the thin leaves of tropical plants? Sometimes I change the lighting in a real place, to make it more or less comfortable, depending on what I need. Real starlight is not warm. Story starlight sometimes has to be. Real electric light-bulbs are a vaguely golden color, regardless of whether you use those disgusting eco things or normal incandescent bulbs. Story electric light-bulbs (or glowpanels…) can have to be anything from glaring white, to grey, to deep, dim yellow-orange.
Has anyone ever actually seen a grey light? No? Me neither. But you know what I mean by it – it’s like white light, but there’s less of it. It doesn’t shine. It oozes. And although some greys can be warm, grey light is always dull and cold… and ‘solid’, or ‘real’. I’ve never found a way of using grey light in a nightmare sequence.
Fourth question: what props do I need to have in this setting? Any object a character interacts with is a prop. Even if it’s a pool of blood and their only ‘interaction’ is to feel disgusted. And that sometimes changes the setting, because if I’ve already blocked out a scene with a character, and said ‘right, so here you’re upset, so you’re swirling your cocoa in your mug to give you an excuse to look down’, that means that wherever we finally decide to put the scene, that setting must have a valid reason for having cocoa in it. Tiny green moths are props. Stone chairs next to waterfalls, around which characters can play hide and seek, are props. (If someone is noticing the waterfall and thinking about it, it’s a prop. Otherwise, part of setting.)
I quite like to give just a scrap of the setting: for instance, when Qui-Gon is talking to Feemor in the gardens, you can see the waterfall and the stone chair, and the word ‘gardens’ fills in whatever plants are necessary for you to understand the scene. For me that’s practically a jungle. For you it may be a sand-and-rock Japanese-style meditation garden. It doesn’t matter, so long as you can see the chair and the waterfall… and the characters.
I really really like doing a setting by walking a character through it ‘onscreen’, having them notice things, pick things up, usually running interior monologue at the same time. I did that for Nasriel’s room, with the drawings above her desk. I did it for the Archives, the dojo, the random hilltop in Greek and Silver, and the mirror maze in Mirror on the Wall.
So now you know all my secrets… you don’t, I promise… get on with reading the stories! Because that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?
Thanks for reading.
How do you do settings? Built from scratch each time, or mixed up from real, or real things transported straight across? How do you make sure your readers notice the right things?