Listen to this: “Take Highway 202 and follow along the prettiest road. It’s just about the way it always was–worn deep down like a tunnel and thick with shade in summer. In spring, it’s so full of sweet heavy odors, they make you drunk, you can’t think of anything–you feel you will faint or go right out of yourself. In fall, there is the rustle of leaves under your tires and the smell of them, all sad and Indian-like. Then in the winter, there are only dust and bare limbs, and mud when it rains, and everything is like an old dirt-dauber’s nest up in the corner.”
Pick yourself off the floor and get to your library. Check out Elizabeth Spencer’s The Southern Woman, her collected short stories (or anything by her). The story I’ve quoted from is “A Southern Landscape.” I read it at lunch yesterday and felt faint and fell right of myself just reading her wonderful prose. I loved her description of the how leaves smelled–“sad and Indian-like.” It brought to mind images of Native American ghosts passing silently down an old hunting trail.
Place, I told my students this summer in our memoir class, is not just bricks and mortar. It’s the weather. A person growing up in Montana, where nature is very much a force in their lives, is different from a person growing up in New York City, where people are very much a force in their lives. Winter weather in Montana can be harsh, all that Great Plains drifting snow and wind. Winter in New York is mostly dreary, with enough snow to make everyone grouchy.
And place, as so beautifully demonstrated by Elizabeth Spencer, is also the seasons. I grew up in Northern Virginia, where the weather is “moderate” (boiling hot in summer, yucky in winter, with gorgeous springs and autumns to make you forget about the other two).
Because we had a big garden, our lives revolved around the weather. My stepfather didn’t just listen to the radio or watch the weather report on TV. He read the sky. And he taught me how to do that, too. Since we were outdoors a lot, he taught me the kinds of trees and how to identify some birds.
The minute I could read, I grabbed every book on birds I could find. I wanted to know what was around me, what lived in the world I lived in. I learned about wildflowers and weeds. I learned about the habits of the small animals in our woods. I tried to know about rocks, but their secrets seemed to be locked inside. When I go on my walks, I’m not plugged into an iPod. I still pay attention to the little goings-on around me.
And this brings me to my recent school visit. The students at this school were wonderful, bright and funny. I could have stayed for a week. During my K-1 assembly, I was acutely aware as I read The Big Green Pocketbook (almost 20 years old) that these kids were hearing about foreign things like typewriters, hand-cancelled checks, five-and-dime stores, drug stores (sometimes I have to explain it’s not where we bought our cocaine), Trailways buses . . . so many things not in their world.
Yet the question that brought me up short was from a fifth grader who wanted to know what a buzzard was. My breath caught in my throat just an instant. How could those older children not know about the birds that circled over their heads nearly every day? Just look up, you’ll see one. I described a vulture’s gliding flight pattern (truly the best flier ever), the once-twice flap of wings every twenty minutes or so.
The day I spoke, the school also hosted Young Scientists. I saw the team, dressed in white lab coats, bustling in with their equipment. The notion crossed my mind to hustle the kids out of the gym and into the fields. We would identify yellow tickseed and look for milkweed pods that had burst open. Made wishes on milkweed “fairies.” We would have watched anxious beetles scuttling through the grass. The season is changing–all creatures are anxious. We would have looked up to observe birds.
We would have gotten tipsy on late-September, grown dizzy watching the lazy circles of a turkey vulture, enjoyed the slant of the sun before autumn slips in, sad and Indian-like.
Let me say up front that it is all Jama’s fault that I am now a "Gilmore Girls" addict. But the setting of the show itself would have won me over anyway. I’m a strange person (this is news?)–when I go to a ballet or a play, I pay almost no attention to the dancers or actors. I fixate on the stage setting. (My all-time favorite version of "The Nutcracker" is the old version with sets designed by Maurice Sendak).
So when I got an eye full of Stars Hollow in the first season of "Gilmore Girls," I spent my time scrooched in front of my small TV, studying the backgrounds. My first impression is that Stars Hollow is indeed a storybook place. The name made me think of Tennessee or Kentucky or Arkansas, but the show is definitely rooted in blue-blooded Yankeeland. The romantically-named town seems to exist with no visible means of industry. Where do those people work? How do they support the pricey Doose’s Market, the flower shop, Kim’s Antiques (okay, she gets a lot of out-of-towners), the bookstore, etc.? Everyone seems to have loads of free time to eat in Luke’s or stroll on the green.
In the background of several shows are improbably happy people trundling hotdog carts or pumpkins or armloads of bunting, ostensibly to put on a town-sponsored event. The way the show is shot has a stage-y quality: the camera follows Lorelei and Rory down the street, past Miss Patty’s dance studio where little dancers are framed in windows that seem to have no glass. We hear bits of conversation from passers-by and then there’s the town troubadour who acts sort of like a Greek chorus. Every town has one of those, right?
We hear about a mall but we never see anything as crass as a McDonald’s (at least I haven’t on the episodes I’ve watched so far) or a WalMart. The illusion is seamless. If only we could make our readers believe in our fictional settings so completely.
So . . . could Stars Hollow be moved to, say, Arkansas? I don’t think so. First, towns in the South have a component that’s missing in Stars Hollow. The church. Southern community life centers around the church and the high school (sports!). Not a snobby prep school, but a regular high school where the kids have acne and the girls are all taller than the boys (for a while).
What is it about Stars Hollow that gives it its magic? The characters. In his book, The Fire in Fiction, Donald Maas says that setting is just a place. It is nothing without characters to bring it to life.
While I think he’s right, I also believe that characters are nothing without setting. Setting enables them to act on the stage we create, gives them space to play out emotions. In her book Write Away, Elizabeth George advises writers to use setting to its fullest. "It’s that commitment to place," she says, "that elevates what might be an ordinary scene in an ordinary place and makes it unforgettable."
Pay attention to the stage settings in your writing. What does the room look like? You don’t have to describe it in minute detail–just a quick camera pan across, focusing on a few key details. In one episode of GG, Lorelei and Luke have an intimate discussion in a corner of the diner, a former hardware store owned by his father. They are discussing a handwritten order his father had scrawled on the wall. This throw-away scene is fraught with emotion–about Luke’s feelings for his father, the growing feelings between him and Lorelei–while they are actually saying they won’t paint over his father’s writing. It’s a small scene where the characters are physically crammed in a corner, but layers of emotion loom large.
I’m going to work harder to give my characters settings that will allow them to shine, give them star quality, whether they are in the rarified atmosphere of a prep school (not likely in any of my books!) or in a greasy spoon, chasing pork rinds with an RC Cola.