Monday, November 25, 2013

A clear and present setting

Patty here

On Saturday I drove to Malibu, a place I have always loved. The heroine of my mystery series, Tucker Sinclair, lives in a teardown on the Malibu beach and a scene from my WIP is set in front of a pet store in a funky little shopping center I used to visit. I once worked in Malibu in an office on a hill overlooking the coastline. I could have easily scribbled down my thoughts about the place, but I hadn’t been there in a few years and…well, it was Saturday and the sun was shining and I just felt like a drive. I figured the pet store might not still be there but that didn’t matter. In fiction you can create a pet store where one no longer exists.

The Malibu Country Mart had changed since the last time I was there. Its funky charm has become Beverly-Hills-at-the-beach chic. As predicted, the pet store was gone. I walked around for a time, inhaling the ambiance. Then I sat at a picnic table near the children’s playground, engaging my senses and taking notes. My story takes place in winter so I was able to feel the chill on my back and see how many leaves still clung to the trees. As I sat counting leaves, the perfect pet store substitution came to me, one that would serve not just as setting but also as a telling detail about my character. I doubt I would have thought of it if I hadn't made a trip to the 'Bu.

Shopping village at Cross Creek Road

Timid settings don't satisfy me. Years ago, I remember reading a novel set in Seattle. I lived there for thirteen years and was eager to follow the action on familiar streets and to see the city's unique culture captured on the page. To my disappointment, the descriptions seemed generic. The book could have taken place in almost any city in the U.S. As a reader, a vivid setting is important to me and I greatly admire authors who conjur a sense of place with a few choice sentences. Many novelists do this. Here are three:

The Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher. I have never been to Cornwall but Pilcher’s descriptions of that place still enchant even though the book has been gathering dust on my bookshelf for many years. I still feel the warmth of the old Aga “simmering peacefully to itself,” warming the cottage. That’s partly why I love the television series Doc Martin. The fictional setting of Port Wenn, Cornwall is, in fact, the real Port Isaac. I can imagine myself walking on a narrow trail toward a quaint cottage, perched above a craggy hillside. Later, I sit by the fireplace to banish a chill and a peck out a chapter of my latest novel on a vintage manual typewriter.

Port Isaac, Cornwall, setting of the hit TV show Doc Martin

Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. I will never forget the nightmarish description of the approach to Manderley in the opening pages of this novel. The words set the stage for the horror to come:

"The drive wound away in front of me, twisting and turning as it had always done, but as I advanced I was aware that a change had come upon it; it was narrow and unkept, not the drive that we had known. At first I was puzzled and did not understand, and it was only when I bent m head to avoid the low swinging branch of a tree that I realized what had happened. Nature had come into her own again and, little by little, in her stealthy, insidious way had encroached upon the drive with long tenacious fingers. The wood, always a menace even in the past, had triumphed in the end. They crowded, dark and uncontrolled, to the borders of the drive. The beeches with white, naked limbs leant close to one another, their branches intermingled in a strange embrace, making a vault above my head like the archway of a church. And there were other trees as well, trees that I did not recognize, squat oaks and tortured elms that straggled cheek by jowl with the beeches, and had thrust themselves out of the quiet earth, along with monster shrubs and plants, none of which I remembered.

The drive was a ribbon now, a thread of its former self, with gravel surface gone, and choked with grass and moss. The trees had thrown out low branches, making an impediment to progress; the gnarled roots looked like skeleton claws. Scattered here and again amongst this jungle growth I would recognize shrubs that had been land-marks in our time, things of culture and of grace, hydrangeas whose blue heads had been famous. No hand had checked their progress, and they had gone native now, rearing to monster height without a bloom, black and ugly as the nameless parasites that grew beside them."

The Dawn Patrol by Don Winslow uses metaphor and setting masterfully. A once-in-a-lifetime monster wave is heading for the San Diego coast. Riding it successfully can cement a surfer’s reputation. Failure could mean a fatal wipeout in a caldron of raging water. As the tension rises in the main plot, the wave moves ever closer, triggering ominous warnings about its deadly force. Just before the climax of the main plot, the wave hits.
"It builds from far away, lifts and rises and rolls as it seems to take an eternity to crest, and then Rain smiles at him again, lies down, and starts to paddle, her arms and shoulders strong and graceful, and she moves into the wave with ease.

Boone paddles after her to catch the wave and ride it with her, all the way in to the beach, except, as he looks ahead, there is no shore, only an endless blue ocean and a wave that rolls forever.

He paddles hard, trying to catch her, desperate to catch her, but he can’t; she’s too strong, the wave is too fast, and he can make no headway. It makes no sense to him: He’s Boone Daniels; there is no wave he cannot catch, but he can’t catch this wave, and then he’s crying, in rage and frustration, until his chest aches and big salty tears pour down his face to return to the sea and he gives up and lies on his board.

Exhausted, heartbroken.
Rain turns to him and smiles. Says, This isn’t your wave.
Her smile turns to sunshine and she’s gone.
Over the break."

 Is setting in a novel important to you? If so, what books have you read with settings that still haunt you (in a good way)?

Happy Monday!


  1. from Jacqueline

    Thank you for this post, Patty. Place is incredibly important to me, both as a writer and reader. I think Adam Nicholson summed it up well in his book on Sissinghurst (formerly the home of his grandmother, Vita Sackville West and grandfather, Harold Nicholson - they were members of the Bloomsbury Group and founders of The Hogarth Press). I was born and raised not far from Sissinghurst, so Nicholson's book really resonated with me. Here's what he said about place:
    “That is the word, I now realize, to which this book has been devoted: place as the roomiest of containers for human meaning; place as the medium in which natural and cultural, inherited and invented, individual and communal can all fuse and fertilize.”

    I like that - place as the roomiest of containers for human meaning. That's why you should have a pet store!

    1. Great quote! Not all will agree, but if done properly, setting can serve as a character in the novel.

    2. Oh I agree, Patty - to me time and place are very much characters in both nonfiction and fiction.

  2. Note that some interesting scenes in the Showtime crime series Ray Donovan took place at the Malibu Market.

  3. That's one of Paul's favorite shows. I have yet to find it on my TW lineup. Is it still on?

  4. I have enjoyed all of Tana French's books due partly to her sense of place. Broken Harbor, her latest, depends as much as anything on the way Ireland's recent economic roller-coaster has altered the landscape. It takes place on a coastal housing estate (development), the completion of which was halted because the money ran out. The main characters are the unlucky few who bought and moved in early and now live in a kind of ghost town.

    1. I read that book and agree. It felt creepy, claustrophobic and all too true.

  5. Patty, "Ray Donovan" is finished for the season but you can get all the episodes on Showtime on-line or Amazon Instant Video and perhaps Netflix download, too. My favorite, and yes, setting is damn important to me. My problem is I only know South Florida and Los Angeles well enough to forego research on places. Paul Levine

    1. Yeah, but you write about both with authority and a good deal of humor. Maybe, using all your travel adventures this summer, you can take Jake to someplace less wacky...nah.


  6. If a story is too vague about the "Place" I cannot see myself there so I would have to say it is VERY important.

    A sense of place is very well defined in the Masie Dobbs series. The story's setting is now so much a part of my experience, that I thought I saw one of the characters while sitting in a bakery in Kensington.

    1. CJ, which one? Did you call out his/her name just to test the waters? You never know...