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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Setting

A couple months ago, I attended a breakfast book event that featured author Elizabeth George, one of my favorite mystery writers. In the Q&A session that followed, someone asked Ms. George where she got her ideas. Elizabeth George writes a series in what the British would call crime fiction, and I'd have guessed her ideas mainly come from police blotters or the nightly news. Her answer surprised me: She gets the ideas. she said, from her settings. She visits the UK looking for a great setting and imagines what might happen there.

Starting a book from the setting -- I wonder how usual that is. Does it depend on the genre? Certainly, setting is critical in sci-fi and fantasy, where worlds are created wholecloth...think of Narnia, Middle Earth, or Hogwarts. Stephen King said that his horror book The Shining was conceived after spending a night as the only guests in the grand old Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, CO  the last night before it was to be closed for the winter. And certainly James Michener's sweeping historical novels (Hawaii, Texas, Tales From the South Pacific) are wholly dependent upon their settings.
Setting is what inspired Blood Exposure.  Born and raised in California, I was fascinated when I moved to the Hamptons to discover graveyards with stones dating back to 1648. The names on those stones corresponded to the names on streets in the towns...and on some of the businesses even today. About a year after we moved to East Hampton, I became friends with a woman whose family was one of the twelve original settlers of the town in the mid seventeenth century. Myself the child of Midwesterners who had moved West as young adults and settled permanently, until I was in college I knew no one else of my acquaintence who had also been born in the state. Everyone from from somewhere else, whether outside or within the US borders. So the idea of someone who could trace her entire lineage within the scope of one single cemetery boggled my mind. They came...and they stayed. Of course, not all of them. But many, like my friend, ventured away to college or early jobs, then came back to the tiny towns with admittedly limited employment opportunities because that's where the family was, where their history was.

I loved this.

I began doing research on the history and settlement of East Hampton, aided by a remarkable permanent collection in the East Hampton library called The Morton Pennypacker Collection. And then one day as I was contemplating how I might work something of this into a book, I took our dog for a walk in Northwest Woods, an aptly-named area on the outskirts of East Hampton Village.

Once upon a time Northwest Woods was a thriving village all its own, with a seaport and school and farms that raised not only potatoes and corn but peaches and soybeans. Residents shipped goods out of a port located just outside Northwest Creek not only to Connecticut and Boston, but all the way to England. But as ships increased in size and they drew more draft, Northwest Creek became too shallow for the boats and trade moved east to where Sag Harbor had just been settled. The farmers of Northwest Woods began to move to other areas where transportation of their goods was easier, and the village slowly became a backwater, and then a virtual ghost town. The woods reclaimed their own. Even today, after a development boom throughout the 1990s, you can drive down the roads and barely glimpse the houses hidden behind the trees. Yet with a trail map in hand, you can wander through the forest of dense white pines and find the foundations of the old school and of houses that stood in the early 1800s...old family cemeteries, surrounded by rickety white fences...even a sad little grave set all by itself for a child who died of smallpox in an era when contagion was believed to continue past death.

I knew I'd found my setting. Hidden back amidst the dense trees, I imagined a family homestead that was losing the battle of being reclaimed by the land it had once commandeered. And what family upheaval would have allowed such a circumstance to happen? It could be nothing less than murder, long ago committed and never exposed...unwittingly aided by a small town comprised of generations of interconnected families who took care of their own.

Setting can sometimes so evocative that it, as much or more than the story, is what stays with you. Beyond the examples mentioned above, one that comes to mind is one of my all-time favorites, A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. So powerful is the image author Betty Smith draws of little Francie Nolan's world in the slums of Williamsburg, Brooklyn that I can envisage it even now, right down to the pickle vendor and the Christmas tree seller on the street.

In what books has the setting been so powerful that the book has remained in your memory for years?

1 comment:

  1. The setting that I remember most vividly is from Barbara Kingsolver's "The Poisonwood Bible." The lush jungle, the exotic birds and snakes, the native people all come together to influence the behavior of the family. The setting in this story is a strong character in itself. The story wouldn't be the same without it.

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