How a fiction writer did more with setting
Published: July 29, 2011
|In the September 2011 issue of The Writer, a Step by Step article by Daniel Stolar offered “six steps for creating convincing, compelling settings that will bring your stories to life.”|
Stolar, the author of a short-story collection, The Middle of the Night, and an associate professor at DePaul University in Chicago, wrote that setting is “not usually what we're reading for. In fact, oftentimes, I’d argue, it’s not extremely important ... until you leave it out. And then it sinks your story.
“Characters,” he went on to explain, “live and work someplace; they walk and sit on something. The air around them feels and smells a certain way. Few things undermine the willing suspension of disbelief like the absence of setting—characters who seem to be floating in some vague ether, who don’t belong to any particular place or time.”
Following is Stolar’s Before and After sidebar on this topic, drawn from his own work on a short story that was eventually published in The Missouri Review.
Before and After: A reluctant but successful revision
Following is the first draft of the beginning of the last section of a short story I recently published. When I first wrote this section, I was quite pleased with it. It’s an extremely sad story about a 1-year-old with a terminal illness and what that does to what was previously a happy marriage.
I knew that I was going a little abstract here, a little internal, but frankly I thought I had earned it, and here toward the end, I was going for a grand gesture, a little bit of telling as opposed to showing, but the power of the sentiment would let me get away with it. Perhaps I should be embarrassed to say this, but I counted 11 versions of the story on my laptop, all with significant revisions over the previous version, but this section near the end stayed the same. I was fond of it.
This is a sad story. And the worst is yet to come. In the short term, Lana and I will be good to each other, hold each other up at the right moments, make decisions together, reach deep into our stores of kindness. I trust that we will mostly keep the kettle of our annoyances from boiling over. We are on the same page regarding Emma’s suffering. But I don’t know if our marriage can survive this. The statistics are pretty grim against us. I don’t know if Lana can ever be happy again. And I’m pretty sure I can’t live with that. The truth is I don’t want to. I guess this is a fundamental difference between the two of us. Maybe I’ll be alone for an extended period for the first time in my life. But really, I doubt it. I seem to have a knack for finding the women I need.
I have barely begun to consider how this all will effect little Maddie. As if her baby sister’s death weren’t enough, she’ll have all the gruesome logistics of splitting parents to look forward to. She has been so stalwart and kind that she has almost been able to disappear at times. But it wouldn’t take a Ph.D. to see the pathogenic potential here, keeping it all together—endlessly neatening her sheets—while it was all falling apart. Lana and I told ourselves to pay attention to this—her firstborn’s need to please—but the truth is we counted on it. Imagine, a five-year-old put in this position.
Then the good folks at The Missouri Review said I needed to return to a scene at the end between the parents in the story. I was stymied. My ending had seemed such a part of the story for so long that I couldn’t imagine how I was going to change it. Then I started thinking about setting. I remembered an event in Tucson, where the story is set and where my real-life wife and I lived before we had kids. I even sketched out a map of the park. Suddenly the scene started to make itself plain.
Lana picks a spot near the back corner of Military Plaza, and I spread out the enormous purple Guatemalan blanket that we reserve for such occasions. In many ways it is a perfect setting for us, in one of Tucson’s few grassy areas, so close to our home. We love the trumped up seriousness of Mariachi music, all the formal regalia, the melodramatic lyrics, the way it seems to be almost winking at you but never quite does. We love the Mexican kitsch, the mangoes on sticks, the bags of fresh fruit sprinkled with chili powder. The various aromas from the metal stalls along Fourteenth Street envelop us in waves--the savory onions and meat of carne asada one moment, the sickly-sweet smell of deep-fried churros the next. And since most of the people here are from the Mexican South Side of the city, we aren’t likely to run into anyone we know.
But even strangers are beginning to react to the sight of Emma. A sick toddler. They look more intently; the reflexive baby smile lingers just a little too long. Kids are the worst.
Emma responds to the music. Somebody has handed her a pen with the corporate sponsorship stenciled on the side in Spanish and a tiny maraca affixed to the end, and Emma is thrilled with the sound she can make. From very early on, she was the more physical of our girls. I liked to say that she would be my little athlete, partly just because I knew Lana would caution me about labeling her. Though it would be hard to call her stomping dancing, we recognize it as such. When the horns blare, she covers her ears. She has always been sensitive to sound. But it doesn’t deter her for long. She marches around us shaking her maraca, on and off our blanket, which tortures Maddie, who wants the frayed edges to lie flat.
I stand up and dance with the girls, while Lana leans back on her elbows with a plastic wineglass of margarita. “Ay, ay, ay,” I shout, and trill my tongue. It is easy to give in to such insistent, enthusiastic music, the teeming families, and I make little toreador passes with the girls. Lana tries to trill her tongue as well, and Maddie and I laugh. “Andale, andale,” I say.
Then suddenly, the blaring horns do bother Emma. She puts her hands over her ears and cries out. She doesn’t stop crying when the horn section subsides. Lana crosses her legs and pulls Emma into her lap. In a nearly unconscious movement, she reaches inside her thin oxford and unlatches the nursing bra and pulls out her breast. Soon she has Emma attached.
Now, I don’t want to claim that I’ve done anything extraordinary with setting here. I see myself more as a student of human character than a painter of beautiful word pictures. But, it wasn’t until I started thinking about setting that the end of this story came to me, and I’m much happier with the ending now.
And though I’m hesitant to explicate my story too closely or put too fine a point on it, there’s something about the way my protagonist here is both a part of the scene (picnicking in the park, dancing to the music) and separate from it (condescending to the kitsch, not Mexican) that fits the way he has handled his daughter’s illness. Did I think this consciously? I’d be lying if I said I did. But I did get very quiet one day, and try to remember what it felt to be in Military Plaza for the Mariachi Festival, and to imagine how my characters would interact with that setting.