Time and Place: The Real World of Fiction
Hi, Jean Lee. Thanks for inviting me to write to your audience today.
You asked me recently, “How does the landscape around me influence my writing?”
Nothing anchors a work of fiction so solidly in a reader’s mind as knowing when and where something is taking place. Settings provide bases of operations for everything that happens in a story or novel, and these settings—along with the characters that will do things in there—provide writers with a means to actually tell a story, rather than simply report information.
I grew up in a small, rural farm town in the Appalachian Mountains, surrounded by reminders of the US Revolutionary War, during the height of the US détente with the Soviet Union. Down in the valley, there are rolling hills, twisting streams, swamps, and small family farms with dairy cattle, sheep, horses, corn and other vegetables. Up in the mountains, where I grew up, there are worn, blunted peaks, steep drops, and tumbled collections of fractured boulders, deposited by the retreat of glaciers so long ago that the land didn’t even know a footprint when those stones were laid down. There are lakes in the low places on top of the mountain, most of them man-made in a time not so long ago when my town was conceived of as a close-to-home retreat for wealthy New Yorkers.
In the winter, the temperatures fluctuate, sometimes bitterly freezing for days at a time, during which the lakes ice over. Then at other times, the weather is mild and merely cool. On such days, the icy lakes suddenly melt, and fog rises, obscuring sight beyond a few dozen yards, and the black-barked, leafless trees loom through the mist. In the Spring (which comes late and slow to the mountains), those same trees suddenly riot with yellow-green leaf-shoots, and the blossoms of flowers in purple, yellow, and white. Summers are a time of blue skies and white clouds reflected on the still waters of the lakes, but also of drenching, earth-shaking thunderstorms. Autumn is a cacophony of colors, gold, red, brown, and yellow, as the leaves change. The temperature drops off in late September when the apples ripen on the trees, and then rebounds for a last hint of summer in mid-October before dropping off again and for good until the following Spring.
As a young man, I didn’t fully appreciate where I’d grown up. It was too familiar, and familiarity breeds contempt. I left that small town as soon as I could to see what this “real world” was really like. Since then, I’ve been a lot of places, and seen pictures of the rest. From city to wilderness, I’ve crammed a lot of travel into a short time on this blue-green marble of ours. And one thing I’ve always found? When I’m stuck for inspiration in my writing, one of the things I can do to break the block is go for a walk wherever I am.
The Credibility of Setting
Human beings are strange creatures. Despite all evidence to the contrary, we’re always in search of “objective truth,” a common reality that is beyond all dispute and argumentation. Why else is “based on a true story” such a great marketing hook? The idea that some strange, absurd, and fascinating story “really happened” carries a certain amount of magic, doesn’t it?
For this reason, every one of our stories has to really happen in the minds and eyes and ears of our readers. The worlds we create have to exist as surely in fiction as if they had actually transpired in fact. And this comes down to two simple things:
- Establishing our characters and their situations and the details of the setting so completely that it all could possibly take place; and
- Effectively conveying those characters and situations and details so that the story does take place.
One of the very best ways to ensure that both of those things happen is to pay close attention to the description of our settings.
For example, in my recent book, A Merchant’s Tale, I take the reader to a time before they were born and a place that never existed. Yet through the description and use of small details, the reader is actually there, seeing the things the narrator is seeing, feeling the chilly, early spring morning of a rural farmland:
The wagon rocked beneath my seat. The trail was rutted and pocked with holes and stones. The axles groaned as the old, grey-haired drover tapped at the oxen with a long, flexible switch and nickered encouragement. Ahead, the hills rose and fell. Early spring leaves on the scattered trees had recently broken bud, and flowers belied the hidden dangers lurking amid the shadows.
We passed through croplands. A ploughman and his ox-goader struggled to drive a team and their ard-plough through a fallow field. It had been cold overnight. No doubt the soil was partly frozen. Adarc told me it was hard work, but they might plough at least an acre that day.
Elsewhere, cow-herds mustered cattle through pastures and dogs barked and nipped at the herd to move it toward the best grazing.
The land rose as we passed through the village fields, bearing east into the hills of Droma. We could look down on the king’s village behind us. It wasn’t much more than a ramshackle collection of thatch-and-daub mud hovels clustered on a wide, shallow bend in the river. The tower was impressive, a three-story shell-keep on a tall hill, but otherwise, I’d seen much more civilized mud-holes.
For the reader, this event really happens, just as surely as the events in any “based on a true story” movie. Despite the distance in time, culture, and place from our modern world, this little scene comes through as clear and crisp as if the reader was standing on that trail on that chilly morning, looking across the countryside of Droma.
All fiction should seem that real to the reader. The only way to make it happen is to pay close attention to the details that you want, and only those you need, to convey your story. Then find the very best words you can to describe those details.
The end result will be a work of fiction that brings your readers in and gives them a realistic sense of where things will be taking place.
Thanks so much for having me on your blog, Jean Lee!
Michael Dellert lives in the Greater New York City area. Following a traditional publishing career spanning nearly two decades, he now works as a freelance writer, editor, publishing consultant, and writing coach. He is also the sole writer, editor, and publisher of the blog MDellertDotCom: Adventures in Indie Publishing. He holds a Master’s Degree in English Language & Literature from Drew University, and a certificate from the Cornell University School of Criticism & Theory (2009). He is the author of two fantasy fiction novellas: Hedge King in Winter and A Merchant’s Tale, which can be found on Amazon in print and for Kindle.