Opening Pages Intensive: Week 1
Establishing setting in literary fiction and nonfiction for people (like me) who don't know what trees and plants are called
Welcome to Week One of our six-week long Opening Pages intensive. This week, we’ll be focusing on all things Setting.
At its basic level, a narrative setting is the time and place a story is being told from. Setting isn’t static: stories can shoot forward and backward in time; they can exist in a world where time is warped; they can be narrated from the afterlife or from the womb or something womb-like. Since setting is part of world building, you should start establishing your story’s setting from your first paragraph.
For a long time, I was unable to do this competently, because I understood setting to be “describing landscape(s)” which is something I am bad at. The books I read as a young person certainly demonstrated setting that way. Two cases in point:
The first page of THE PRINCE OF TIDES by Pat Conroy
Though they scare me less now, descriptors like “port” and “channels” and “flats” and “watermark” seemed to me the property of Yale-educated, old money white male writers who had grown up in the landscapes they were writing about. As a suburban teenager who couldn’t differentiate a knot in my hair from a nautical one, what claim could I ever have to a “quiet nation of oysters?”
But the women writers I was reading were doing setting even better than their boatnecked counterparts:
The first page of ANNE OF GREEN GABLES by L.M. Montgomery
I’m reading this book to my nine year-old right now, and it still stirs up my setting-capabilities imposter syndrome. “Fringed with alders?” “Headlong brook?” I do not see the world like this. I often don’t know what certain trees or shrubs (or brooks) are called, which made me feel ashamed when I was younger, and also made me sad, because if I could not describe whether a brook was “headlong” or (the alternative?) could I ever be a real writer?
Because look at the kind of settings-writing I was being taught in school!
From BELOVED by Toni Morrison (page 2)
But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks? The way that Toni Morrison was writing setting was different from what I’d read before. She didn’t write setting like a horticultural expert, nor did she write like an aggro lobsterman. There was emotion in her settings: there was yearning, fear, and joy. There was a lot of anger. And, from what I could parse as a teenager in high school, her setting had to do with class and the geography of body. This was a ground shifter for me: the realization that settings could show where a character was speaking from emotionally and physically. That kind of setting was stirring to me, and felt like something I could try.
Today, I think that setting (or my preferred term of “world building”) is the most important tool we have in our work-kit. If you, like me, can’t distinguish an alder from a Christmas tree, here are other ways to get at setting:
How to build your settings (without naming any trees):
a non exhaustive list that I will probably add to as we go along
Goods for purchase Brand names, regional specialities.
Food/Beverages Are your characters drinking a pour-over, or are they drinking sweet tea out of a styrofoam cup?
Chain names Fuddruckers isn’t just anywhere, hon.
Diction/lingo The way people talk speaks to where they hail from.
Temperature There is the crazy-making power of the Santa Ana winds, and then there is the humidity of the lower bayou. The skin feel of temperature is a great way to make readers sink into your story.
Insects/vermin This follows off the above— what kinds of insects and vermin do residents most often have to contend with in your fictional or real setting? Where I live, it’s groundhogs, ticks, and black flies. In Australia, TikTok tells me it is massive “carpet pythons” that live in people’s attics rent free because they eat a lot of mice and never stop growing until the day they die?
Limitations Someone who is in maximum security prison is not going to be narrating a story the way a cattle rancher in Wyoming would. It can be helpful to think about the limitations on the time the narrator has to tell their story (which can create an urgent tone, see Ryan Chapman’s RIOTS I HAVE KNOWN for one such example or Jim Shepard’s THE BOOK OF AARON for another). It’s also fun to consider the limitations of the space from which the story is being told. (One of my favorite books WOLF IN WHITE VAN by John Darnielle is effectively told entirely from one room in a basement apartment—but the narrative itself carries us all over the place.)
Infrastructure My husband, who is French, finds it fascinating that us Americans have our power lines above the ground. Even though I lived in France for nearly seven years, I had never noticed this until he pointed it out: that power lines in France (and much of Europe) are underground. Now I look at these damn things all the time and I think: America. And I also look for writers making mistakes and writing visible power lines into rural France.
As you’re writing your manuscripts (and especially your opening pages), give special attention to the infrastructure of your world. Are there watertowers in your characters’ sightline? Are the streets paved or are they cobblestoned? What condition are the roads in? If it is going to snow, are those roads going to be salted? The way that roads are maintained say a lot about a town.
Birds, LLC1 My French mother-in-law knows the specific Latin name of every blade of grass, but my knowledge starts and stops at “Weeping Willow.” Birds, though, I can do. Birds are useful signifiers if you are horticulturally challenged, like me. Turkey vultures can do a lot for a story, let me tell you. So can a pelican, a seagull. What kinds of birds do you have in your story world, and why?
I can’t put all my thoughts and tips about writing a dynamic setting into just one post because Substack has a word-count limit. In the next edition of our Opening Pages Intensive, we’re going to focus on world-building/setting in genre fiction (sci-fi, thriller, dystopian, fantasy), which is a separate animal from literary fiction/nonfiction because you need to establish and communicate rules and hierarchies.
Join us, won’t you? In the meantime, after the jump, I invite paid subscribers to share their opening pages with me for a chance at a personalized critique. Upgrade if you’d like to. We’ll be doing this for six weeks, maybe longer. It’s going to be fun!
Open call for first pages from literary fiction or nonfiction (rules)
For this first week, I’d like to look at opening pages from “straight” fiction or nonfiction (short stories are okay, too!) If you’re doing any of the genres mentioned above (fantasy, thriller, sci-fi) please hold on to your pages, your week will come soon.
Here’s how to participate:
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