Setting matters in fiction because it matters in life. I wrote the early drafts of The Princesses of Iowa in a little house in the mountains of New Mexico, halfway between Albuquerque and Moriarty. When I looked out my windows, I saw scratchy Russian thistle, the blue-violet slopes silhouetted against the sky, the fat roadrunner that lived in my backyard, the occasional coyote. But on the page, I tried to recreate the Midwestern landscape of my youth: red barns against fields of bright yellow soybeans, bittersweet vines wrapped around sagging farm fences, the wide blue Iowa sky.
Setting – where we are, where we come from, when we are, when we’ve come from – shapes us. Part of the fun of writing The Princesses of Iowa was taking familiar characters and relationships (the high school mean girls) and transposing them into a world I recognized as my own. I once overheard my agent describe my book as “Gossip Girls of Iowa.” At first I was horrified, but then I fell in love with the idea. Because we all know the mean girls in New York and California, the mean girls with money and power, with designer clothes and private schools and fancy cars. We see them on TV and in the movies all the time. But those girls don’t live in my world. In my world, the rich girl doesn’t get a BMW on her 16thbirthday, she gets a brand new Subaru. Where I come from, to be financially successful, you don’t have to be the CEO of a global corporation; being the town’s orthodontist puts you at the top of the economic food chain.
For me, a large part of the appeal in reading contemporary fiction is coming across that perfect detail – something you’ve noticed, or heard, or felt in your own life, something you may not have even put words to, or something you believed no one else has ever noticed – and saying, “Yes! Yes, that’s exactly how it is!” It’s reassuring, that moment of recognition; it validates your own experience and affirms that you’re not alone in the way you experience the world.
The joy of writing contemporary fiction is in the opportunity – and the challenge – to find those unique details, to capture the world as you experience it. And – if you’re doing it right – setting isn’t just descriptions of pretty landscapes; it pushes action, and reveals character.
Every character comes from somewhere, and every character has a prism of assumptions — cultural, regional, religious, political, familial, social — and emotions through which she views the world. Her assumptions shape the way she sees, how she makes her metaphors, how she speaks, how she reacts, what (and who) she admires, what she loves. Her emotions determine the things she notices and how she processes them.
For instance, take two women at a small-town fair. One is in her late seventies, and she’s there because she wants to revisit the place she met her late husband. Her joints hurt, she’s a little cranky, and she grew up in a time when children were taught to be seen and not heard. The way she describes the fair will be filtered through her prism: it is loud and garish, it’s not what it used to be, it’s shabby and small where it used to be magnificent, it’s too hot, it’s vulgar, it’s lonely. Everything she describes, every interaction she has, and every emotional reaction she has reveals her character, because everything she says and notices is filtered through her unique worldview.
The other woman is fourteen, just a girl, who’s spent the summer between eighth and ninth grade selling produce at a roadside farmstand. She’s tan and strong and friendly, with enough cash in her pocket to ride every single ride. For her, the fair is full of possibility: it’s the social scene of the summer, the one time all summer that the teens of the town are all in the same place at the same time. She’s changed, and she can’t wait to see if anyone notices. To her, the hum of the crowd is intoxicating, and in it she hears all the conversations she might have, with newly-interesting boys who never noticed her before. The rides look thrilling and the lights enticing. And because she’s spent the summer hauling produce, she compares the unfamiliar colors and shapes of the fair to the familiar ones of the vegetables. The funhouse is the purplish black of a ripe Black Bell eggplant, and the sweaty tendrils of her hair stick to her face like corn silk.
Everything they notice, everything they say, the way they move and how they interact with the setting — it all reveals character.
With each draft, we have to pay close attention to these details, because often they reveal more about our characters than we know ourselves. And if done well, all these tiny details, many of which will go virtually unnoticed by readers, add up to a greater whole — a living, breathing, complicated person with a history and a future, someone who will live on in your reader’s mind long after he finishes your book.