SSS Archive – 14 December 2009

NOTE: SSS Archive posts are reposts from a defunct blog usually with minimal edits. Thoughts contained are not necessarily anything I believe any longer, and even in the posts I’m still on board with (and consequently posting here), there’s sometimes some cringe. Be advised, and take it all with a grain of salt and some generous patience.

This weekend as I celebrated my birthday with martini after martini after martini, I had occasion to sit and watch all three Lord of the Rings movies in a row.  The movies are just great, even if the CG is starting to show its age, and the books are something I come back to every couple of years.  

The tone of the books tends towards a sort of turgid grandiloquence – they read like a mix between the bible and a harlequin romance, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  In going for the Eddas, Tolkien hits a slightly prosier note and winds up reading like a really rich translation of himself.  Of course he throws in lots of ballads and skalds, sagas and songs which, as they are almost all translated from languages long lost and forgotten gives him a great deal of leeway in flubbing meter, rhyme, and alliteration. 

But it’s worth noting that Tolkien actually wrote many of those poems in those original languages – in this case he really was a translation of himself: he would write a poem in Elvish, cut out the snippets that might make it down through the years, translate them to English (for our purposes, “the common speech”), and then go so far as to organically morph an old history into a legend and a legend into a myth. 

The word organic is key here, because if Tolkien was aware of anything, it was the influence of words on reality and vice versa.  He knew how events could become muddied over time, but not because the recollection magically goes away like socks in the dryer: someone actually had to go and forget the histories.  Real people had to go do something else and forget about the One Ring, which brings us to the point of this post:

The setting is the story. Setting brings context to events and verisimilitude to the plot. It is within the confines of setting that characters come together and know each other, and likewise it is within those same limits that they act.  Setting creates mood and steers development, and ultimately any story is bound to it’s own time and place.

Where would John Cheever be without the suburbs?  Hemingway without Spain?  Flannery O’Connor without the South?  James Joyce without Dublin?  Paul Auster without New York?

Ad Infinitum.

The immediate contrary question becomes:  what about the timeless classics that keep getting reinvented?  I would argue that plots keep getting recycled, yes, and characters themselves become archetypal once sufficiently exposed, but in the case of both, the plot and the characters are re-adapted to their new setting – for evidence, one need only compare Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to the 1996 film adaptation – the plot and characters are neatly transplanted, but the stories become distinctly different. 

Of course, transferring a narrative from Italy to SoCal is an example of picking some pretty low-hanging fruit.  Put that story in the middle of, say, Saskatchewan and you’ve really got something – again, I digress.

A critic whose name I never remember said of Star Wars that it was the first vision of the future to look like it had a past, and that’s really what setting is all about: cognizance of the world around the characters, knowing that no matter how much you come down down on the side of nature, it is the environment that nurtured these people.  To paraphrase DesCartes, the characters cannot know anything they’ve not personally experienced, and that experience comes from their setting.

(This is also one of many, many places where the Star Wars prequel movies went wrong – everything looks new, everyone acts like they just got there, not enough blue milk – again, I digress)

It is the setting that captures the events as they unfold: the bodies left behind, the witnessing passers-by, the poet immortalizing deeds in song all come from the same world as the characters.  The writer is best served by living in that environment himself:  That doesn’t rule out imagined worlds at all; in fact, I think it encourages them – the writer must immerse himself in the culture, the geography, the sights, the smells, the food, the language, the flora, the fauna, the entirety of the place, take it in, and color the experience of the story through that lens.

Why do people always tell you to go to Paris?  Why do they always tell you to go to Amsterdam, brah?  ’cause like in Amsterdam brah?  Everything is like legal brah, it’s crazy!  They tell you that you have to go there to have the experience, to explore that constructed region of the world, to hear its stories. 

Locations have their own connotations.  Everyone wants to write a New York story because it immediately pulls something to the fore of their minds: skyscrapers, subways, immigrants, whatever, and I don’t blame them – New York is a pretty snazzy place.

But the New York many new writers want to write about just doesn’t exist.  Times Square is Disney World, Central Park is where yuppies walk their dogs, Brooklyn is where hipsters go to spend their parent’s money.  The old New York is just that: old.  Any story set in old New York is immediately dating itself, which isn’t necessarily bad – but the author who has his character pull out an iPhone in a smoke-filled hang out on West 42nd should really be paying more attention. 

The best thing a writer can do is to start small, and look in his own back yard.  You live in Podunk, Iowa?  Write a story set in Podunk, Iowa.  You live in Los Angeles?  Write a story set in Bell Gardens or Lynwood.  Find out little details about the piece-of-shit place you live: Who’s the mayor?  When was it founded?  Who supplies the water and electricity?  How many cops?  Just by going through the trouble of learning these basic facts, a writer often finds a story.  Every street corner has a story if you know how to read it.

Looking Back – 15 June 2021

One thing it’s going to take me another year or two to learn (that is, looking at this through 2009 eyes and thinking back from now) is that it’s not always a good move to start out rude and aggressive and then come around to saying something useful. Sarcasm doesn’t do much except put readers off. One thing I keep coming back to regarding my writing at this time is my own insecurity. I get it, I was afraid of the future – Debt high, prospects low…not a good look. I wrote this, if I recall correctly, from my newly acquired rented room in Berkley where I lived with two very good friends – the next year was tumultuous…honestly? The next FOUR years were tumultuous…but the blog does eventually start to demonstrate a little more empathy and kindness, which I think is much, much better.

Now the content – THAT I still agree with. I am still an active participant in my Detroit-area writer’s group, and we discuss frequently the need to set stories in places we know or can know. Our motto really ought to be something along the lines of “No New York Stories” because none of us – not one – live in New York nor have we spent enough time in New York to appropriate it.

Neil Gaiman writes that “fiction is the lie that tells the truth,” and for that to work, for the fiction writer to really do their job, they have to have some truth to tell. That’s easier, more effective, and more genuine when we don’t have to stack lie on top of lie on top of lie. When I describe events that never happened involving people who never lived, that’s already a pretty big whopper. When I set that in the Pacific Northwest, I’ve just compounded the lie because I have spent all of 7 days total between Portland and Seattle. I just don’t have the authority as an author to do the setting justice.

I’ve heard it multiple ways, of course. I’ve heard the argument that there’s something to be said for “imagining” a place into being, and of applying what you know to what you don’t know. I’ve had a few stories touch base with upstate New York and / or New England because I’ve been there enough to sort of extrapolate similarities, and because setting in these cases is a pass-through rather than a substantial character. All of this brings me around to something else that sort of bugs me about my old writing: a sort of bossiness. Again, it’s clearly insecurity at work.

End of the day? Set your story where you want to set it. Write what you want to write. MY perspective, such as it is, is that you get more mileage out of the familiar than the strange…but then again, sometimes the strange leaves an impression. There really is no wrong way to write, and that’s something you’ll see me learn over the course of the SSS Archives.

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