Developing writers have assured me so many times that they would “put in setting” after they had completed first drafts of their novels that you’d think I’d be prepared for this proposal, but still it always shocks me. A writer’s inserting setting into a half-baked story is like a baker’s adding the yeast after the bread is kneaded. Yeast releases the air bubbles that create the grain of the loaf, its physical structure. Without yeast or some other leavening, the loaf cannot rise. Setting is the world through which characters move and conflict and plot play out. Setting, like yeast, is not put-in-able at late stages of the cookery.
A writer’s inattention to setting from the beginning of a story results in its floating in the clouds, unmoored, deprived of a specific culture and definite place. Fiction needs a context, something impossible to provide without a setting. For this reason, fantasy writers must build worlds as well as characters. Writers of realism must place their plots in a real place that affects events, not a generic one.
Although place does concern distances and landmarks, it also determines character. The remark “Bless her little heart” may mean something ironic, rather than fond, something entirely different in Charleston, South Carolina than it does in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The subtle assumptions of a Louisiana fisherman differ from those of a Wisconsin farmer in ways we can’t know without experience in both places.
In early April, my son Jason and I drove from Minneapolis to the North Shore of Lake Superior for the day. We went to the mouth of the Gooseberry River, where we sat at a picnic table overlooking the open water where the river entered the big lake. The wind was cold; I wore my beloved old secondhand beaver coat with the collar up around my ears. As we sat there, we talked about the scene before us and hypothesized.
On the far side of the river, on a sandbar, two people sat looking for agates, far enough away for us to be uncertain of their age and gender, though we thought they were a youngish woman and a twelve-year-old girl. How had they reached that sandbar? Beyond them, a seventy-five-degree bluff arose. They couldn’t have descended that steep incline on the opposite bank. They must have gone from our side across the river ice. But look, we said. Look how rotten the ice is. See that dark place, where the snow is saturated? They were lucky once, but they’ll have to cross again. Those people are headed for a swim.
After a while, the child returned across the ice to our side of the river. She avoided the dark spot. She was lanky and her weight was light; she made the crossing without mishap. A few minutes later, the woman followed her, but she quickly left the girl’s tracks. As she headed straight for the place where the snow was wet and dark, Jason took off. He skidded down the ten-foot cliff on our side of the river and came even with her upstream when, just as we had foreseen, she fell through the ice. Perhaps she found a footing on a submerged rock, for she caught herself on the sharp edge of the hole and hauled herself out. Jason shouted at her to lie on the ice and crawl to the riverbank, but, still oblivious to her danger, she ignored the advice. The last time we saw her, she had taken off her icy jeans and stood shuddering and barefoot in a cotton skirt. She did not thank us.
Here were four characters in a far-north landscape, on the banks of a river where the flow and depth varies according to snowmelt, which was light this year. The two agate-seekers were strangers to this place; no native would cross river ice in April, knowing that it’s unreliable even in cold January. No native would bring a cotton skirt on an April road trip to the North Shore. No. Natives bring wool and fleece and down and beaver skins. This mother who had risked her own and her child’s life was also a fool.
The observers, Northerners all their lives, were not particularly prescient or wise. They foresaw events not only because of their own experience with rivers and lifetimes in the North, but because they had read Jack London’s terrible story, “To Build a Fire,” where an Alaskan trapper falls through river ice and freezes because his hands are shaking so hard he can’t keep a match lit. People on the North Shore say that, if you capsize on Lake Superior in early spring, you have twelve minutes to save yourself from hypothermia. After the incident at the mouth of the Gooseberry, a blasé gas station clerk said to us, “Oh, ya. People die down there every coupla years.”
Fiction writers must create the world through which their characters move. They must consider how that world influences events and how it has shaped the people who inhabit it.