How Setting Works in Story
Today’s guest post comes from author Gordon Frisbie. He has studied and applied a variety of environmental disciplines ranging from water quality to air quality and all the critters that inhabit these havens. Even though outdoor activity is more favorable than indoor activity, the latter dominates his schedule. Skiing, camping, and fishing fill his thoughts more than his time. A few of Gordon’s stories have landed inside obscure and defunct literary publications. His appreciation for writing continues to grow as he explores the worlds of other writers and tries to explain his own version of the universe.
Every morning, when we drove down to the secluded park within a wealthy suburban enclave, we parked below the old mansion. It appeared abandoned. There was no sign of life behind the aging iron gates and unkempt landscaping. Last summer a large yellow excavator rolled onto the site and began tearing the mansion down. The unique architectural lines of the proud structure, and whatever hid within, were reduced into a pile of rubble.
On one of these mornings, I bumped into Peter who lived a few houses down the road. Ask Peter a question and you’ll get the unabridged version. I asked him about the demolition. The mansion’s owner was an oilman with a corrupt, sordid, and colorful past. Jail had been his seasonal home. When he wasn’t detained by the law, he built an imposing stone and concrete house to suit his predilections. Half an hour later, I had all the material I needed for a novel I’ll never write.
While wandering along the park’s well-worn trails of dirt and mud, other acquaintances might share small pieces of their lives or wonder about my chosen vocation. I’m reluctant to reveal much. I’m an air quality guy, I tell them. Others return to the old days and moan about the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into. Most of the time we talk about dogs and the current nature of the park.
If the cottonwoods could talk, they would answer many of my questions about the history of this place. Once again, this would include an exclusive society of wealthy oilmen. And only the cottonwoods could identify the geniuses who planted all the hideous Russian olive trees.
Except for the exquisite masonry surrounding the park, there are no rocks, just loam and clay. A perfect substrate for the scattered hayfields and pastures. Without rocks, the history is more fluid and less definite.
Native Americans must have passed through here and settled by the cattail fringed creek that splits the small grassy basin. Elk, deer, and bison would have drawn them eastward over low Piedmont ridges and into a wide valley where the remains of petrified trees could be fashioned into tools and weapons.
Before the trees were turned into flint, and before the trees themselves, prehistoric critters swam through a vast sea. And before that–who knows?
The setting enriches any story. It’s more than a background or prop. Many times, it’s the main character that dictates the drama and molds the frail mortals. The Himalayas in Seven Years in Tibet, the River Why in The River Why, The Pacific Ocean in The Sea Wolf, the Channel Islands in Toilers of the Sea, Manhattan in Catcher in the Rye, much of Wyoming in The Virginian, and the Mississippi River in many Mark Twain stories.
Professional occupations often require tunnel vision and a limited backdrop. Recreation and the road between work and play expand our horizons. If you’re lucky enough to be the main character in a Louis L’Amour novel, there’s no difference between the two. A sketch might fit inside an office cubical, but a story requires a larger environment.
Behind the scenery is another story. This often tempts my interest as well. The setting itself becomes dynamic and mutable. It provides a larger context for a shorter series of events. Mountains begin as plain old igneous matter before breaking through the earth’s crust and capturing our wonder. A river might stubbornly favor its ancient channel and force the mountains to grow around it. Tall ranges will become glutenous for water and desiccate the deserts on their leeward sides. Basalt and rhyolite will be the only remnants of volcanoes that disappeared eons ago.
Plants bring life to unforgiving habitats. Lichens and columbines claim the thinnest atmospheres. Cacti and cryptogamic communities defy the sun. Pikas and scorpions will follow. People may not fit into these harsh landscapes and the story becomes one of survival.
The nature of our lonely spherical island, as it circles a larger sphere of violent luminescence, provides a measure for time and seasons. Each season has its own palette for sound, smell, color, and behavior. And each day brings a new story.