The Importance of Setting in Fiction

For Sunday - a Church in North Georgia

Photo is “For Sunday – a Church in North Georgia” by JR P

The significance of a setting in a work of fiction cannot be underestimated. Poets can use precise details of setting to convey both an emotion they are trying to evoke or to symbolize an element that they are emphasizing. Writers often record memories of places they have visited or use setting to symbolize elements of the plot. Readers often select books not just for the story, but to also have a sense that they have stepped into another world that is unfamiliar to them, and if that setting is appealing, they will cheerfully purchase sequels that are set in the same location. Robert Frost was known for his poems that described the beauty of nature in his New England home. Frost was originally from San Francisco, a place vastly different from the place where he settled. In his essay “The Figure a Poem Makes” Frost stated:

No tears in the writers, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader. For me the initial delight is in the surprise of remembering something I didn’t know I knew. I am in a place, in a situation, as if I had materialized from cloud or risen out of the ground” (Gioia 11-12).

Although Frost was speaking metaphorically about the enlightenment that can come from writing, his use of the word “place” can also be interpreted as literal. As a poet, Frost was skilled at making each word work for him, and readers can expect no less from his essays than they do his poetry.

Frost used setting in his poems as both an actual place he was familiar with and symbolic of a deeper meaning he was conveying. In his poem “The Black Cottage” Frost describes a walk he took with the local minister where they examined an abandoned cottage in their area. The cottage is described as “A front with just a door between two windows, Fresh painted by the shower a velvet black” (Lathem 55). The house had belonged to a woman who had died, yet her things remained inside because her sons lived far away and did not visit the property. The minister states:

It always seems to me a sort of mark

To measure how far fifty years have brought us.

Why not sit down if you are in no hast?

These doorsteps seldom have a visitor.

The warping boards pull out their own old nails

With non to tread and put them in their place (Lathem 56).

As the narrator sits on the front steps, the minister talks about the woman who lived there, describing her attitudes toward different races, how she acted when she talked of her husband’s death during the Civil War, and the minister’s respect for her adherence to tradition. Frost uses the cottage to symbolize the life of the woman, her memory decaying because there was hardly anyone around who remembered her life, yet all the mementos of her existence were still in her home. It is significant that the person who is telling her story is the local minister, for by having him tell her story, Frost is reminding us that even after people are gone, God will remember them and record their trials in life, their daily routines, and their stumbling attempts to understand the world around them.

In Frost’s poem “A Peck of Gold,” he speaks of San Francisco and his impressions of the city when he was a child. He talks about the dust that blew except when the fog rolled in and how he was told “Some of the blowing dust was gold” (Lathem 249). Yet gold is not seen as a blessing. In the poem “Gold dusted all we drank and ate” and as a child he was told “We all must eat our peck of gold” (Lathem 249). Frost’s father was unsuccessful in his careers of politics and journalism. He died without insurance and his family was forced to move to New England to seek help from his relatives (Gioia 6). California’s nickname is the Golden State, but Frost uses the nickname with irony to describe San Francisco as a place of sorrow.

I understand Frost’s attitude about California and his use of gold. In my poem “Star Blind” I used the image of gold cufflinks distracting players from a gambler’s movements while he was cheating at cards as a metaphor for politicians who sold Californians on schemes that were touted as the cures for the problems caused by a previous scheme, but ended up deepening the state’s economic woes. My poem contains a reference to Californians forgetting that much of what glitters is pyrite and rhinestones, rather than gold and diamonds. During the 1849 gold rush, many miners thought they had found a rich supply of gold when all they had actually found was pyrite, a mineral common in California. Although I could have written a poem about politics in general, the state whose politics that I am most familiar with is California.

Phillip Levine, the 2011-2012 Poet Laureate of the United States (Washington Post blog), was originally from Detroit, Michigan, and lived in Fresno, California, where he taught at California State University Fresno. Many of his poems are about Detroit. In his essay “Part of the Problem,” he describes what it was like to work in the Chevy plant:

I have already tried at least a dozen times to capture the insane, nightmarish quality of my life at Chevy: that epic clanging of steel on steel, the smell of the dead rates were poisoned who crawled off into their secret places and gained a measure of revenge, the freezing winds at our backs as winter moved through the broken windows, the awesome heat in our faces, those dreamlike moments when the lights failed and we stood in darkness and the momentary silence of the stilled machines (Pack and Parini 144-145).

It is Levine’s use of the details of the setting that makes his essay and his poetry come alive. In many of his poems he describes his home in Fresno. In the essay Levine refers to a home he had in Fresno near the National Guard airfield (Pack and Parini 145), an area not far from my ex-mother-in-law’s home. I am familiar with both the airfield and the area around it that he talks about.

During the last eight years that I lived in Fresno, Levine lived in a home on Van Ness Boulevard in the Old Fig Garden district, not far from my own home. The street is lined with deciduous redwoods and tall pine trees, and the stately homes are set back from the road by wide expanses of lawn. When I read Levine’s poems and essays where he talks about the scent of orange blossoms from a neighbor’s tree or other details of the Fig Garden area, I am reminded of my own former home and what it had been like to live in that part of town. I remember the smell of the lemon blossoms from the tree in my yard and how the eucalyptus branches swayed slowly in the wind, leaving their camphor scent in the air. The value of a writer or poet’s ability to describe a setting in vivid details is two-fold: to transport us to that location and make it real to us, or to remind us of someplace we have already been. When I return to visit my family in Fresno I see the graffiti, smell the smog, and am appalled by the rudeness of the people and the congestion of traffic. But Levine’s poems remind me of the things that I had liked about the area where I lived in Fresno.

Nancy Willard’s essay “Close Encounters of the Story Kind” is about her mother’s illness and realizing that the story she needs to write is not about angels, but about her mother’s life. But it is Willard’s use of setting that brings the essay to life. She uses details sparingly, making each one have a maximum impact for her. The lobby of her mother’s nursing home is “beautifully decorated in silver and blue wallpaper” (Pack and Parini 265), a detail that shows it is an upscale establishment rather than a small, run-down facility. Willard describes the five-block walk from her sister’s house to her mother’s nursing home by listing the businesses that she passes; a Presbyterian Church, a synagogue, a Greek restaurant, a Mexican restaurant, a grocery store owned by a Korean man, and a second-hand bookstore (Pack and Parini 265). Her list sets the reader up for Nancy’s encounter with the Jewish man who gives her advice on writing. When Nancy and her mother look at the old photographs of Nancy’s grandparents and other relatives, her mother’s description of the farm where one of the photographs was taken give Nancy an epiphany about the direction that her writing needs to go. Nancy’s mother describes the pump on her grandfather’s farm in Iowa, how she carried water to the farm workers, but her own mother insisted that she run water over her wrists to cool her off before she was allowed to drink the cold water (Pack and Parini 276). Her mother’s description of the farm led to Nancy’s stories about life in the country set in the time when her mother would have been young.

Writing is a way to return to a landscape that the writer knew and loved or loathed at an earlier stage in his or her life. After she had finished a piece that she had been working on, Joyce Carol Oates writes:

Bereft these days of a piece of my heart. This queer “miniature novel” I’d been working on for what seemed to me far too long, and now it’s finished, and I miss it terribly, the odd unrepeatable voice of it, its interior rhythms, the very alienness of the landscape (much of it in Detroit Metropolitan Hospital: a fictitious approximation of the real hospital”, most of all the strange heroine, murderer/murdered, one of the “insulted and injured” (Pack and Parini 165).

Oates is speaking of the great sense of accomplishment most writers feel when they finish a piece they are working on, but she notes that there is a sense of loss as well. The setting that writers capture in their work can be so real to them that when they finish it is like that feeling of going on a wonderful vacation, only to return home, left only with your memories and the photos you took. You grieve a little for the place you left behind, and if you stayed in one location for any length of time, you miss those sights that became familiar landmarks. Oates is expressing that grief, of missing her inner visit to Detroit, a town she had lived in for six years (Oates 75).

Oates has lived in several places in her life. Setting is an important part of her work, as anyone who has read her short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” or any of her novels knows. Oates notes that, “”home” isn’t a street address or a residence, or, in Robert Frost’s cryptic words, the place where, “when you go there, they have to let you in”–but where you find yourself in your most haunting dreams” (Oates 74). Unlike some writers, she has no problem with being labeled a regional writer.

Writers, particularly novelists, are linked to place. It’s impossible to think of Charles Dickens and not to think of Dickens’ London; impossible to think of James Joyce and not to think of Joyce’s Dublin; and so with Thomas Hardy, D. H. Lawrence, Willa Cather, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor–each is inextricably linked to a region, as to a language-dialect of particular sharpness, vividness, idiosyncrasy. We are all regionalists in our origins, however “universal” our themes and characters, and without our cherished hometowns and childhood landscapes to nourish us, we would be like plants set in shallow soil. Our souls must take root–almost literally (Oates 74).

I feel that Oates is right in her comments that all writers are regionalists. Some books do not have a strong sense of place, that are set in a “generic” location because the writer had a foolish idea that it will be more appealing if people can “focus on the story” or see it as their own hometown. But those books have a flat quality and seldom see more than modest sales. I prefer books with a strong sense of place which is why I also focus so much on setting in my writing.

In my short story “The Scent of Sagebrush” I set much of the story in Virginia City, Nevada, a location I have visited on three occasions. I was fortunate to visit when the sagebrush was blooming. People tend to assume that a desert smells of dust, and some of them do, but the smell of the sagebrush is something that I will never forget. Virginia City was also one of the locations I used in the novel that I am editing. I have written other stories that were set in Fresno, the Arkansas Ozarks, Owasso, Oklahoma (where I lived for eight years), and Pittsburg, Kansas. I feel that my work does have a regional flavor, although I have used different locations. My goal was to capture a setting so completely that a person could read my work and go to the location and feel a sense that he had already been there. Some of the greatest thrills of my life was visiting places that I had read about in books, such as De Smet, South Dakota, where Laura Ingalls Wilder set her several of her book, and southern Louisiana where James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux mystery novels are set.

Flannery O’Connor embraced the label of regional writer. She says, “The country that the writer is concerned with in the most objective way is, of course, the region that most immediately surrounds him, or simply the country, with its body of manners, that he knows well enough to employ” (O’ Connor 28). O’Connor sets her work in Georgia, in the place and among the people where she lived for most of her life. She was aware that some people might view a strong focus on setting as a negative aspect. She says, “To call yourself a Georgia writer is certainly to declare a limitation, but one which, like all limitations, is a gateway to reality. It is a great blessing, perhaps the greatest blessing a writer can have, to find at home what others have to go elsewhere seeking” (O’Connor 54). In a statement that echoes Oates’ attitude toward setting, O’Connor writes: “When we talk about the writer’s country we are liable to forget that no matter what particular country it is, it is inside as well as outside him” (O’Connor 34).

O’Connor reveres the label of Southern writer, extolling the virtues of a writer being planted south of the Mason-Dixon. Her most quoted remark is when she says, “Whenever I’m asking why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one” (O’Connor 44). O’Connor states that there is a “prevalence of good Southern writers” (O’Connor 45), and she feels that writers in the South are motivated to excel because of the competition around them. She states:

When there are many writers all employing the same idiom, all looking out on more or less the same social scene, the individual writer will have to be more than ever careful that he isn’t just doing badly what has already been done to completion. The presence alone of Faulkner in our midst makes a great difference in what the writer can and cannot permit himself to do. Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down” (O’Connor 45).

O’Connor’s comments show how important she felt that setting was to a writer. Southern writers, even those who leave the region, tend to set their work in the area they are familiar with. The certain knowledge that a Southern writer is climbing the same ladder as Faulkner, O’Connor, Caldwell, McCullers, and others forces him to excel.

If the same plot were placed in Georgia as was set in Maine, the characters would change to reflect the atmosphere of the region. There would be no Spanish moss hanging from live oaks, no mild winters, and no threat of tornados or the sort of floods that frequently come with heavy rain in the South. New Englanders tend to be taciturn rather than as passionate and impulsive as Southerners. Regional dialect is very different, with people in Maine using the word, “Ayuh” as a form of agreement to whatever has been said, where Southerners would have no idea that the Maine people had contributed anything to the conversation other than an odd sound. O’Connor points out that the reason Southern writers tend to portray their setting and their people more vividly than other regions is because of their ability to communicate. She feels that due to the social interaction in the South, Southern writers are more in touch with their community rather than fitting into the stereotype of the “lonely writer” (O’Connor 52). She states:

One of the reasons Southern fiction thrives is that our best writers are able to do this. They are not alienated, they are not lonely, suffering artists gasping for purer air. The Southern writer apparently feels the end of expatriation less than other writers in this country. Moreover, when he does leave and stay gone, he does so at great peril to that balance between principle and fact, between judgment and observation, which is so necessary to maintain if fiction is to be true (O’Connor 53-54).

The best books tend to be written by writers who are either still living in the region that they write about or who make sure they return to the area often enough that they remember what the setting looks like, what phrases people tend to use, and those locations that give the place its special flavor.

John Berendt uses setting so well that reviewers often describe him as making the setting itself into a character. In his book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, the city of Savannah becomes so real to the reader that he feels as if he is visited there himself. Berendt also wrote The City of Fallen Angels which is set in Venice. Berendt notes that one does not hurry the process of becoming familiar with a place if one wants to write about it with the depth he showed in his book. Berendt says, “It’s not as if I’d come to town for a few days and need to get information right away before I caught a plane and left. I was actually living in Savannah, and then Venice, and could come back again and again” (McDonnell 71).

Berendt was not a native of either city that he wrote about. He felt that factor actually helped him to portray the city in more detail than a writer who had lived there for a long period of time. Berendt says, “Since I was an outsider, everything was new to me. Someone who grew up in those surroundings wouldn’t see things in the same light. Something that struck me as remarkable might have been commonplace to a native. In this regard, first impressions are crucial. I always write them down before the newness wears off” (McDonnell 72).

Berendt’s skill as a writer is his ability to capture the nuances of a community, to see what a place is really like beneath the tourist spots and slum sections. A place has a particular feel to it, and the key to writing a setting that feels real is to be able to sense that. Berendt says, “Each city has a personality, a mood, a history. Just as characters do. Each of the cities I’ve written about so far has been a self-contained universe–inward-looking, steeped in traditions, with its own value system. For my purposes, the setting colors the characters and brings them vividly to life. As Flannery O’Connor has said, “The best literature is regional” (McDonnell 72).

Berendt echoes a belief that I have about places, that each one has its own flavor. Pittsburg is like stepping back into the 1940’s. There is a sense of timelessness here that I cherish. The town looks much the same as it did when I came to visit my grandparents when I was young and a lot like it did when I lived here in 1981. I suspect that twenty years from now I will be able to drive down Broadway and all that will be changed is the names of the businesses. The population is approximately the same as it was in the early twentieth century. My former home in Owasso is a place where growth is spinning wildly, gobbling up pasture land, with a population that swelled from twenty-two thousand in 2002 to over thirty-six thousand when I moved to Pittsburg in 2010. The new people moving in to Owasso have no concept of the way the town had looked the first time I saw it in 1981 when there was only three thousand people. The atmosphere of that town has changed drastically, where Pittsburg has retained the same feel it always had.

In examining the comments of Frost, Levine, Willard, Oates, O’Connor, and Berendt, we can see the importance of setting in a poem, a short story or a novel. Their words remind emerging writers of the importance of details in setting, in taking the time to convey what a place is really like. Readers are seeking either a familiar place to return to or a new place to explore every time they open a book.

Frost, Robert, and Edward Connery. Lathem. The Poetry of Robert Frost: The Collected Poems. New York: Henry Holt, 1979. Print.

Gioia, Dana, David Mason, and Meg Schoerke. Twentieth-century American Poetics: Poets on the Art of Poetry. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill, 2004. Print.

Hall, Donald. Claims for Poetry. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1982. Print.

Hall, Donald. Claims for Poetry. University of Michigan, 1982. Print.

McDonnell, Sharon. “When Setting Becomes Character: John Berendt, Author Of “Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil,” Uses Cities As Protagonists, In Narratives Populated By Colorful Figures.” Writer 123.6 (2010): 20-23. Academic Search Premier. Web. 27 Apr. 2012.

Oates, Joyce Carol. “Going Home Again.” Smithsonian 40.12 (2010): 74-89. Academic Search Premier. Web. 30 Apr. 2012.

O’Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970. Print.

Pack, Robert, and Jay Parini. Writers on Writing. Hanover: Middlebury College, UP of New England, 1991. Print.

“Philip Levine Delivers Last Lecture as US Poet Laureate.” Washington Post (blog). 4 May 2012. Web. 5 May 2012. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/arts-post/post/philip-levine-delivers-last-lecture-as-us-poet-laureate/2012/05/04/gIQAlSsM1T_blog.html&gt;.

Photo is “For Sunday – a Church in North Georgia” by JR P.

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