As someone who has lived overseas and moved twelve times, I know that every place is unique. Two towns from a small state like Connecticut appear so similar to an outsider, but to a native, they are as different as night and day. There is a different rhythm, a different sensibility. Every town has a unique, idiosyncratic heartbeat once you get beyond their similar appearance.
So I shouldn’t have been surprised that shifting my setting upended my novel. I naively thought this would straighten out a few plotting issues. My characters kept wandering over into this town for entertainment so I figured I would situate them there. My plot problems would be solved, right?
Of course not. In fact, I created a slew of new obstacles for myself. And as the esteemed Jane Resh Thomas wrote last month, “setting, like yeast, is not put-in-able at late stages of the cookery.” I had ruined my “bread.” Most of my original scenes no longer fit.
My first town was largely homogenous in demographics and was located on a sheltered harbor. My new setting jutted out into the Atlantic, its harbor unprotected from the elements. In many ways, my young protagonist was less protected, too. She finds more ways to get in trouble. While other characters had to find new jobs, she found new dreams. So I experienced first hand what Jane wrote last month. “Although place does concern distances and landmarks, it also determines character.”
As I revised, I recalled Ron Koertge’s lecture back in summer residency of 2013. He proposed we let our characters wander through the town and see whom they meet as an exercise in character cartography. On any summer’s day, my characters would have run into some of the wealthiest families in America. Additionally Ron advised that we “map out your character’s world and see what sticks out.” As it turned out, my characters tripped over things that stood out and lay splayed out on the sidewalk. From that vantage point, though, they could see the underclass—the nameless, faceless servant class of those moneyed families. I realized these servants were not nameless or faceless to my characters. So I had to uncover their stories as background to my story.
In the end, social class became an antagonist in my story, thwarting the dreams of my protagonist. She can’t go anywhere without being affected by class distinctions. My protagonist loves to swim. In the former town, there were lakes and a shoreline available to everyone. In the new setting, there is a swim club reserved for only the very wealthy and the shoreline is privately owned. She also loves the movies, but class determines where she sits. Affluent summer residents reserve the box seats and servants crowd the theater on their solitary afternoon off.
Moving my setting presented many challenges to my “work in progress.” Using Jane’s metaphor, I had to throw out the bread I was baking. Truly, this new loaf is so much better. We often hear about letting our characters lead as we write and revise. Perhaps we should consider having the setting lead, and see what happens to our characters and plot.
Ellen Kazimer is a January 2014 graduate of the MFAC program. She lives and writes in Virginia.