How do I create unique, plausible settings that may not exist but aren't sci-fi or fantasy?
Published: April 5, 2012
Q: I like to create settings that are creative but plausible, even if they may not exist or aren’t well known. (In other words, I don’t want to write fantasy or sci-fi.) I don’t find a lot of fiction that does this. Is it out there?
A: I’m not sure how you define “creative” when it comes to setting, but my impulse is still to answer this question in the affirmative. Laura van den Berg’s short story “Where We Must Be” features a narrator that works at Bigfoot Recreation Park, a place people go to “have an encounter with Bigfoot.” The narrator dresses up like Bigfoot and makes these desires a reality. The park is situated in Northern California and the story unfolds in reality as we know it:
Today I’m going after a woman from Albuquerque. She’s small and sharp-shouldered, dressed in khaki shorts and a pink sweatshirt. I’d be willing to bet no one knows she’s here. For a brief time, this woman will be living in another world, where all that matters is escaping Bigfoot. People say the park is great for realigning their priorities, for reminding them that survival is an active choice. I’m watching her from behind a dense cluster of bushes. The fat man has informed me that she wants to be ambushed. This isn’t surprising. Most people crave the shock.
Van den Berg has taken a familiar natural setting and made it unique through the Bigfoot experience. It is also through this experience that the narrator comes to her own realizations. The unique setting, then, is a necessity to the story.
In Kevin Wilson’s “Blowing Up On The Spot,” the narrator works as a sorter at the Scrabble factory. Indeed, such a place exists, but perhaps not in the way Wilson writes about it:
There are five large sorting rooms in the factory, each one filled with one hundred workers who sort through a mountain of wooden tiles, which fall in clumps from an overhead chute. At several times during the day, a large blue light flickers on and off, accompanied by a siren’s wail, and all the workers stop their sorting, pick themselves up off their hands and knees, and watch A’s and J’s and R’s fall all around them making tic-tic sounds like a thousand typewriters going at once. I wade around in the alphabet, up to my knees, and search for Q’s. It’s not a glamour job.
I’ve not personally visited the Scrabble factory, but on safety and productivity concerns alone this seems an unlikely reality. But plausible? Yes. And the nuance of the setting serves this story well, as characters compete and sabotage one another, adding to the narrator’s unhappiness.
Stacey Richter’s short story “Christ, Their Lord” is set in Yuletide Village, a community where Christmas is celebrated with three weeks of light displays, while the streets are closed to cars and filled with hay carts, carolers, children and tourists. It starts in early December:
Then, one by one, our neighbors begin to erect elaborate dioramas in their yards. Apparently, there is a contest. Cindy Nickles rings the doorbell and makes me come out and pretend to admire her Wise Men, which are wooden cutouts, decaying and faded like my mental companion Socrates.
These communities do exist, but they’re not as prevalent and familiar as the grocery store or the suburban subdivision.
In crafting place, you are not limited by reality. Tap into your imagination and work on your ability to write these places so that they are essential and convincing.
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Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide
. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including
Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and
was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for
Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University,
University of Wisconsin and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a
visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University.