Saturday, November 19, 2011

Anchored in Setting

We recently took a quick trip to the mountains. Drinking in the view of mountains stretching across the landscape refreshes the soul.

Blue Ridge Mountains
I store the sights and memories for my personal edification, and keep them in mind for story settings. One of the things I love about front porch fiction is the strong tie to setting. Change it, and the story must be changed to accommodate. Mary Alice Monroe's Sweetgrass is a prime example, as is MaryBeth Whalen's The Mailbox.

And every story I write. The above photo is a scene from my short story, Shining Rock:

During the ride from Asheville, Travis had stretched across the back seat to, "catch up on sleep", contradicting Jason's claim that his son had badgered him to tag along on the excursion. But once on the Blue Ridge Parkway, an unexpected love emerged, and Travis sat up and stared through the window at the layers of hazy ridges filling the horizon.

Kathy knew the look. Travis was learning what Brian had taught her five years ago. Separated from the noise and stress of city life, formed by the clash of lands, the mountains were a place to connect with the Creator. A reminder of His glory and sovereignty. Where wisps of clouds flitting around folded peaks seemed the very breath of God.

Brookgreen Gardens, Murrells Inlet.
Setting for one scene in Fall in Eden
The setting sets the tone, and clues the reader into the character's journey.

Shenandoah Valley, Scene from Honeysuckle Creek

I'm a firm believer that, like the mountain views I love, readers should be able to drink in the settings in my stories.

Looking Glass Falls, Pisgah Forest
Backdrop for the final scene of Learning to Live Again

So, like a movie director, I scout settings to use in scenes. The following is a piece of flash fiction I wrote, which finaled in the 2011 WOW! Women on Writing Summer Flash Fiction contest. As you can see, the setting is woven into the story so tightly, it's part of the character's journey.

Fighting Chance

I dipped the paddles into the black water, stirring the lake as I would sauce in a pan. Despite the ache in my arm, the rented rowboat surged forward. Perched on a bench in front of me, my twelve-year old son waved a matching set of paddles in the air.

“Chance, we would get there faster if you put those in the water.”

“Go where? There’s nothing out here.” He slumped in his seat. The paddles jutted toward the sky. “Man, I can’t believe I’m stuck in the middle of nowhere with my mom. And I can’t even go swimming.”

Sunbeams bursting through clouds glittered on the choppy water. I glanced around the shallow Pososin lake located in the extreme nowhereness of coastal North Carolina. A place so isolated and sparse, not even Nicholas Sparks could pull a story from it.

I checked the GPS. The destination provided by the park ranger loomed ahead. “Just a few more feet. Help me paddle.”

Chance huffed, bloating his cheeks, but the oars splashed into the water and the boat moved a few inches. A mighty heave on my part later, we reached our goal.

“Stop.” Using one paddle to maintain our position, I glanced over the side. Though black in color like most of the creeks and rivers flowing through the coastal plains, the acidic water was somehow clear, and the sandy ground below, visible.

“Let’s sit here a minute.”

Chance threw his paddles into the bottom of the boat. As he exuded anger that had become so common after his father moved out, I pictured the happy boy he had once been. Minutes later, when tears that threatened evaporated in the heat, I pointed to an object protruding from the sand. “There, Chance. Look.”

He leaned over the side, rocking the boat. I grabbed his shirt and tilted in the opposite direction for balance. Chance peeked over his shoulder. “Wow, Mom. It’s a log. We came all the way here to see a log.”

I forced a smile. “Look again.”

Though he flashed a look of disgust—and another heavy sigh—he stared into the water where a plank of wood shimmered beneath a kaleidoscope of shifting waves.

Chance craned his head forward. “Hey, there’s more of them. What are all those logs doing in the water?”

“They’re not logs. They’re dugout canoes.”

Chance glared at me, his thin, blond brows furrowed. “They’re what?”

“Dugout canoes, made by the natives who once hunted on this land. When they finished fishing, they stored them in the water, which has just enough acid in it to preserve the wood.”

I pointed toward the artifacts below. “Those are over four thousand years old.”

Chance stretched over the side of our manufactured watercraft and stared at the piece of North Carolina’s past buried in the water. “Wow, you mean real Indians used those?”

With his attention now mine, I repeated as much of my research on the tribe and their lives as I could remember. My arms ached as I strained to hold him while once again balancing the boat. My muscles and heart had taken a beating on this trip, but at least my son’s history grade had a fighting chance of survival.

And if my reader learns a little bit about the Carolinas, all the better.

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