I just got home from eight days in my old stomping grounds.
I grew up in Michigan and left for Florida when I was eighteen. I never looked back. There are things I miss about it—my family (obviously) and the seasons. I mean, the summers up there are amazing. But that place just isn’t for me.
For instance, my husband, Robert, and I took the boys to this random little zoo while we were there. It was so quirky and out-of-place that we just had to go. I mean, who has zebras in central Michigan? So we waltzed onto the property with amused expectations of the exotic wildlife in this almost-Canadian geography.
Mind you, I had just taken my boys to Zoo Miami a month ago. It is four miles from my house; I get a military discount. It’s a no-brainer. We saw some pimp-ass shit at Zoo Miami. All rescue animals living on multi-acre plots simulating their native lands. The division between exhibited animal and spectating human was a wide trench and a small fence on the human-side. Also, Dippin’ Dots! What’s more pimp-ass than that?!
But here we are in Mid-Michigan, following this dirt path (sans Dippin’ Dots) toward these cages—cages? Yes. Cages. Monkeys, tigers, bears, lions, and otters in tiny chain-link cages with dirt or concrete floors. No trees, grass, or any elements of what they’re instinctively drawn to live among. I almost cried when I saw a grizzly bear fumbling with the lock on his cage, then looking up, down, and all around, assessing his enclosure and realizing there is just no fucking way he can get out of it. Ever.
When we were finished and thoroughly appalled, we walked back through the gift shop where I accosted the teenage employee. “Where did you get these animals?” I asked.
“Most of them were born into captivity,” she answered. “Some of them were given to us, though.”
Our hearts dropped a few inches in our chest. I think I even took a step back and stepped on Robert’s toes as he asked, “What do you do with them in the winter? I know most of them are from Africa; they’re not equipped for the snow.”
“Well, since they were born here, this is all they know. So they just stay here throughout the winter.”
I wish I could have seen our faces when she said that. There are so many emojis that could properly and chronologically depict the despair that overwhelmed us. We left the pri(zoo)n, trying to figure out who the hell to call to get this place shut down.
Setting. It’s vital.
If you don’t believe me, ask the grizzly bear.
In writing, the setting is considered one of the most important components next to plot and character, and consists of two things: the geographic location and the time period. The setting determines the mood, society, protocol, and most of the time, the disposition of the main characters.
Think of a play. The backdrop determines the play’s setting: if it’s The Sound of Music, the backdrop is mountains, goats, and all things 1930s Austria. If it’s Sherlock Holmes, the backdrop is a creepy house with winding staircases, a fireplace with a cozy sofa, and anything else depicting murders in 1800s England. And if your lazy ass is producing My Town, you have a backdrop of absolutely nothing. Don’t get me started on that.
Imagine your story as a play. What is the backdrop?
One common rule-of-thumb is to write about places you know. Well, yes. This is true. It’s embarrassing to get things wrong—to be ignorant of cultural dialect or landmarks, or to pronounce words incorrectly or butcher the local slang. It discredits you as an author, and it turns off readers. As much as I loved watching Dexter, Robert and I would roll on the floor laughing at their obvious ignorance of the city of Miami. Brickell—which rhymes with pickle—was pronounced “Brick-ELL.” Dexter lived in Kendall, which is very much inland, and yet his apartment was on the water.
No, Dex. Just…no.
The worst murder in that entire series was the depiction of Miami.
If you’ve never been to Los Angeles, don’t drop your story there. Just like I’d never write a character who is an archeologist (because when it comes to fossils, I’m dumb af), I’d never write about a place I’m equally dumb af about.
That may limit some of you who haven’t had many opportunities to travel to different places. That’s okay! Google Earth makes stalking soooo much easier. Also, find someone who is familiar with that area, and interrogate them about the city. Or! Make something up! There is no law that states thou shalt not create a fictionalized city in thy novel. Many authors have done famously with this—J.K. will be the first to tell you that Hogsmeade is completely made up. And that’s not limited to just fantasy. Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects is set in Wind Gap, Missouri. Pshh. Go punch that in Waze. I guarantee that Waze, Siri, and Alexa will talk shit about your stupidity for weeks to come.
The beauty of a fictionalized setting is that you can do whatever you want with it. If you need mountains and hot springs and high-rise condominiums to accommodate to your plot, knock yourself out. If you need deserts with little holes to hold all the dragon eggs, then dragon eggs and desert your heart out. Be as creative as you want, as long as it is appropriate for your plot.
There is another rule about setting that I’d like to clarify a bit, and that is that the setting should be like one of your characters.
This is true, but not in the way you think.
Not every book needs to be The Shining, where The Overlook Hotel is basically a living, breathing character. Literally. (Shiver)
What this generally means is to make sure your setting isn’t flat, like we tend to make some of our characters. Your characters need a plush, well-rounded world to dwell in while their stories unfold. Whatever city or town or world you utilize for your setting, just use its personality to enrich the reader’s experience and to aid in the character’s quest. If it’s set in Philadelphia, make them walk by the Liberty Bell while eating a Philly cheesesteak. If they’re in Chicago, I need them to zip up their jackets as that biting wind cuts through their souls while they walk through Millennium Park toward The Bean. If they’re in Dallas, make them sweat to death on a bale of hay. End of story.
Do you see how suddenly, those towns I mentioned have personality, almost like they’re characters of their own? That’s how to make your setting a character. And to make this even more delicious, add fictional places in your real-life setting. Now Chicago has an iconic pizza restaurant called Swerve, where your main character works as a bartender and meets a mysterious man who frequents the restaurant and orders a Deep Dish and a Heineken every night (I guess he wouldn’t be so mysterious as just a predictable fat man if that were the case). Anyway, you get what I’m saying.
The point is, not only flesh out the backdrop, but USE PROPS.
Lastly, when considering your setting, I like to go beyond fitting it into the mood and genre of your story, and also consider the personality of your main character. In Wind Chime Poison, Aubrey is sexy, classy, and holds a tight façade of confidence. So I set it in Westchase, Florida – a charming, sophisticated suburb of Tampa that was established in 1991, yet the architecture includes elements of history, suggesting a mysterious atmosphere amongst a modern location. While I never lived in Westchase, I did live in Tampa and drove through Westchase daily on my way to work for two years. And don’t think I didn’t create a fictional coffee shop that heightened the suspenseful mood and catapulted Aubrey into the climax at the end!
In The Rules of Burken, Charlotte is sweet, simple, and loyal to a fault. Which also seems to describe any small, rural town in the Midwest, no? I immediately thought of Cadillac, Michigan. It’s cozy, it’s cute, and it’s rich in history as well as many miles of forests that you can bet your sweet ass I utilized for many of the chase scenes.
Your setting should benefit your writing; you should be easily harvesting everything your setting has to offer to complement your characters and thrust the plot along smoothly. If you’re finding that your setting is hindering your story, it may be another issue entirely than just having the wrong setting—perhaps you haven’t fleshed out your characters enough, or you’re just not that familiar with your plot yet.
Whatever the case, if while you’re writing, you find yourself stumbling upon some incongruous grizzly bear tugging on its locked cage, stop. That’s just … there are so many things wrong with that setting. Email me and I’ll help you through it, both metaphorically and literally.