Wednesday, April 25, 2012

More on Details in Story Setting

In my previous post, I talked about researching and using details on nature in your story. While eagerly waiting for another piece of front porch fiction to be released, I'll expand on the need for such details.

Shortly before his death in 1885, former Union general and president Ulysses S. Grant completed his personal memoirs. The result was a volume his friend Samuel Clemens reportedly called, “the most remarkable work of its kind since the Commentaries of Julius Caesar”. While some hailed the work as a military masterpiece, others found the memoirs engaging from the start, when Grant talked about his childhood in Kentucky and Ohio.

One element that makes the memoir so appealing is Grant’s use of description. Not just details on battles or politics of the day, but details on the landscape. And thanks to Grant’s care in including those details, modern day readers get a picture of the country as it was during Grant’s lifetime. Those reading about the US Army’s advance toward Mexico see a land south of the now heavily-populated Corpus Christi, Texas, as devoid of vegetation and lakes. The only water available, the water that pooled in indentations made by animals. And south of that, herds of wild mustangs the size of which rivaled the herds of bison roaming through the northern territories.

In Bushwackers, the true story of the war of secession in the southern Appalachian Mountains, William R. Trotter also provides similar details of the landscape, giving readers a vivid picture of the Blue Ridge Mountains during the Civil War.

The descriptions in both books weren’t gratuitous mentions given to show the authors' knowledge. Both men applied the details they provided to the events that occurred, giving the reader a sense of time as well as place.

While some consider this to be a fiction technique that improves the readability of works of non-fiction, fiction writers sometime forget to expand the storyworld a few feet beyond their characters. One aspiring author had her characters talking to one another in a void, providing little information about the setting around them. The scene could have taken place anywhere, in any city, state, or country, or in any era. Providing details not only helps the reader see “the big picture”, as with Grant and Trotter’s works, it also gives readers a sense of the character's life during the chosen time period.

How to research these details? For historical context, call or visit the nature sections of museums in the area, including museums of natural science. State and national park websites often provide information on the region’s wildlife or ecology, past and present. Other sources include state and local natural conservancies.Park rangers are a wealth of information, as is Facebook. Earlier today, Audubon of North Carolina posted a note that Scarlet Tanagers are back in the region. How interesting would a tanager or an Indigo Bunting, appropriately placed in a historical or contemporary novel, be in a story?

Then use the knowledge wisely. As Grant and Trotter did, weave details into the narrative, connecting it the characters’ journey. For contemporary stories, dying hemlock trees can serve as a powerful metaphor for the infectious nature of sin, or the fight to save them a symbol of redemption.

Whatever details you choose to use, give the reader what they want: a clear and complete picture of the storyworld. A grieving character sitting on a front porch watching a gentle rain fall on her drought-stricken hydrangeas is a far more interesting, and powerful, image than two characters arguing in a white void.

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