By Timothy Hallinan
Author of A Nail Through the Heart: A Novel
“Everything happens somewhere”
-- Pieter Haag
does your book take place?
course, on one level, it takes place in the hearts, minds, and
imaginations of your characters. On another level, it might take place
in Omaha. Or Venus.
Nicolson Baker once set an entire novel (I think) on an office-building
escalator. All the action in one of Don DeLillo's novels takes place in
the back seat of a limousine going cross-town in New York, a journey
that (as I know from personal experience) can seem to take a lifetime. A
writer like Robert Ludlum might take you to twenty locations in eighteen
is, of course, the physical universe in which your story is set. But I'd
suggest that it's much more than that. It's a reflection of the
characters. It acts on the characters. It provides an
almost inexhaustible source of details that can help you tell your
story more vividly or give you an entirely new set of ideas. In a sense,
it's a character in itself. And, generally speaking, books in which the
setting is skillfully presented are better books because of it.
writers are indelibly associated with certain settings. Larry McMurtry's
west is an enormous and open land to which some characters bring small,
closed minds. Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles is sunny and hospitable on
the surface and corrupt underneath. These dark depths are the natural
habitats of his characters.
probably read novels in which the settings are nothing but brand names:
Riding uptown in the Lincoln town car, Dolores passed Tiffany
and Prada and the magical toy emporium of FAO Schwartz. Modestly
interesting, I suppose, but it would be a lot more interesting if it had
something to do with Dolores.
suppose we read instead, Riding uptown in the Lincoln town car,
Dolores allowed the smooth leather of the seat to calm her. She checked
her fingernails as they passed the glittering art deco spire of the
Chrysler building but sat forward as Tiffany, Prada, and FAO Schwartz
now we've done three things at once: we've seen a little of New York,
we've learned a little about Dolores, and we still got all those brand
names. In the first example, the setting was passive; it was just
scenery. In the second, it was active; it wasn't just New York,
it was Dolores's New York.
want to finish your book, you need to know your setting as well as you
know your characters. Believe me, the setting can bail you out when
you're stuck. It can present a new course of action. It can give you the
word picture you need for a fresh approach to open a scene or a chapter.
It can capture the reader's imagination.
suggest exploring your setting in the same way you explore your basic
idea and your characters.
hope that your setting has the following characteristics.
It's a place that interests you. You're going to be spending a lot
of time there.
It's a place you know a good deal about, or can discover a good deal
It's a place that's interesting to readers, or one that you can
make interesting to readers.
it's an imaginary setting -- Venus, for example, or Tolkien's Middle
Earth, it's a place you have done a lot of thinking about.
You know its geography, its inhabitants, and its rules (moral and,
if necessary, physical).
and am fascinated with both Los Angeles and Bangkok. I've spent
substantial amount of time exploring them both. I could probably write a
pretty bad city guide to both or either of them. That makes it fun for
me to write about them, and there are times during the writing of any
novel when having fun can be the only satisfaction available.
feel equally at home, creatively speaking, with Winesburg, Ohio, or
18th-century Paris, or a twentieth-century high-rise, or the inside of a
maximum-security prison. Whatever your setting may be, I'd hope you'll
work to make it active rather than passive. It will be presented from
your characters' perspectives, whenever that's appropriate. It will
play a role in the story. It will affect your characters.
In some ways it will reflect them.
help to think about the theater when considering setting. Theater
directors take setting extremely seriously. It might be a bare stage
that takes us directly into the minds of the characters or an
extravaganza of elaborate sets that provides a social, intellectual, and
emotional context for the story. What it never is, at least not in a
good production, is a series of pretty pictures in front of which the
actors pose and declaim.
need to use your setting for all it's worth. Otherwise, it's dead
is the author of A Nail Through the Heart: A Novel (Published by
William Morrow/An Imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers; July 2007;
$24.95US/$31.50CAN; ISBN: 978-0-06-125580-9). Hallinan divides his time
between Los Angeles and Southeast Asia, primarily Thailand, where he has
lived off and on for more than twenty years. As a principal in one of
America's top television consulting firms, he represented many Fortune
500 companies and pioneered new methods of making television programming
accessible to teachers. He has also taught writing for many years. A
Nail Through the Heart is his seventh novel.
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