Without Geography You’re Nowhere: Why Setting Matters

HudsonvoyagesWe are awash in narrative. It arrives on every platform in ever-shorter form. (A Little Life not withstanding.) Which has me wondering, who has the time to dwell in a Brontë moor? And what’s the pay off?

Setting: A History

Nearly 3000 years ago, Homer* described 190** ships sailing to Troy by their captains’ homes in The Iliad. That’s an awful lot of setting. But taken sequentially, the homes map the coastline of Ancient Greece. Surely a handy mnemonic device for the beleaguered bard. Not to mention a compass for the audience!

Four-hundred years later, give or take, Aristotle analyzed how narrative works in Poetics. Poetics stands up. It’s still how narrative works. Three acts. Reversals, surprise, recognition. Protagonist. And setting. Sometimes I think we’ve been shaving setting ever since storytelling began. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

I’m as impatient as the next person. (Perhaps more so if you believe those closest.) I am inclined to skim, okay skip, the Catalogue of Ships. When Toni Morrison began Tar Baby with “He believed he was safe,” no way I wasn’t going to keep reading. Who believed he was safe? From what? And crucially, was he? That kind of lead exhilarates.

But I yearn for context, for geography. I love an author who marks out his fictional world. It feels…hostly. Generous. Here is the kitchen, the bedroom and the toilet. Make yourself at home.

Setting: Now

Take Elizabeth Strout’s first sentences in Amy & Isabelle.

It was terribly hot that summer Mr. Robertson left town, and for a long while the river seemed dead. Just a dead brown snake of a thing lying flat through the center of town….

Strout’s not messing around. Excluding the comma between dead and brown gives those three words, dead, brown and snake, equal weight (equal thud!), and makes onomatopoeiac Amy’s dead emotional state. (Spoiler alert!!) And that river can be seen as Mr. Robertson’s penis. A book begins this way and my heart pounds faster. Seriously. It is a sure-footed author who starts with geography.

The Payoff

Marry geography to the concrete detail, as Dennis Lehane does in Mystic River, and I think you get a richer portrait of time and place and character and conflict. Lehane introduces his three main characters this way:

Jimmy and Dave came from the Flats, down by the Penitentiary Channel on the south side of Buckingham Avenue. It was only twelve blocks from Sean’s street, but the Devines were north of the Ave., part of the Point, and the Point and the Flats didn’t mix much.

It wasn’t like the Point glittered with gold streets and silver spoons. It was just the Point, working class, blue collar, Chevys and Fords and Dodges parked in front of simple A-frames and the occasional small Victorian. But people in the Point owned. People in the Flats rented. Point families went to church, stayed together, held signs on street corners during election months. The Flats, though, who knew what they did, living like animals sometimes, ten to an apartment, trash in their streets…families living on the dole, sending their kids to public schools, divorcing….

Read these two paragraphs and you know Jimmy and Dave, Flat-dwellers, are doomed, right? Sean, with his church-going, sign-holding parents, he’s got a chance.

Going Too Far

You can take this geography stuff too far. Case in point? James Michener’s Hawaii. In high school I staggered through the first 1000*** pages of Hawaii’s geologic history before a volcano blew everything to smithereens. Michener devoted the next 1000*** pages to the second (and thankfully final) geologic formation of Hawaii. I skipped straight to the action. Bring on Rafe and those rotting bananas!

Three New Yorks

Patricia Park threads the needle in her opening to Re Jane.

Home was this northeastern knot of Queens (in the town, if you could call it a town) of Flushing. Northern Boulevard was our main commercial thoroughfare, and two-family attached houses crowded its side streets. …when I landed here as an infant, Flushing was starting to give way to Koreans. By the time I graduated from college in 2000, Northern looked like this: Daedong River Fish Market, named after the East River of Pyongyang. Chosun Dynasty Auto Body, run by the father of a girl from my BC calc class. Kumgang Mountain Dry Cleaning, owned by my uncle’s accountant’s cousin on his mothers’ side. This was my America: all Korean, all the time.

Compare that New York to Saul Bellow’s in Seize the Day. We meet middle-aged Tommy Wilhelm hiding behind a hat and a cigar in a high-rise elevator.

[Wilhelm] came from the twenty-third floor down to the lobby on the mezzanine to collect his mail before breakfast and he believed—he hoped—that he looked passably well: doing all right. It was a matter of sheer hope, because there was not much that he could add to his present effort. On the fourteenth floor he looked for his father to enter the elevator; they often met at this hour, on the way to breakfast…. But there was no stop on the fourteenth, and the elevator sank and sank.

Tommy, though he lives in buzzy Manhattan, is a man in a box on the way down. His New York is claustrophobic.

Or to Hanya Yanagihara’s New York in A Little Life.

The eleventh apartment had only one closet, but it did have a sliding glass door that opened onto a small balcony, from which he could see a man sitting across the way, outdoors in only a T-shirt and shorts even though it was October, smoking. Willem held up a hand in greeting to him, but the man didn’t wave back.

In the bedroom, Jude was accordioning the closet door, opening and shutting it, when Willem came in. “There’s only one closet,” he said.

“That’s okay,” Willem said. “I have nothing to put in it anyway.”

The authors paint New York City three ways: Korean-American NYC, mid-century-middle-class-white-failure NYC, and young and gay NYC, respectively. I’m grateful for Park’s, Bellow’s and Yanagihara’s orientation. They earned my trust. I turned the page.

The Age of Explorers

Remember social studies? And learning about all those guys searching for shortcuts to the Spice Islands? Henry Hudson tried four times between 1607 and 1611.+ Each time he sailed west and took a meandering course. He’s credited with discovering the Hudson River and Hudson Bay. In 1611, his crew mutinied. They cut him and his teenage son adrift in Hudson Bay. In a rowboat. Have you seen how far north that bay is? I don’t mean that as a threat. No, really. Just do me a favor and when you write your next novel, give me some coordinates to navigate by. I’d appreciate it.

*If you want to go down the rabbit hole, Google the Homeric Question. Short version? Scholars suspect Homer did not author the Catalogue of Ships.

**Estimates vary.

***Slight exaggeration.

+To view approximation of Hudson’s four voyages, see map at top.

10 comments

  1. Carol D. Gray

    I agree with E.B. Examples of what works and why make such a difference. I will never neglect setting again! Thanks Lisa.

  2. Bonnie Waltch

    Great post, Lisa, and I agree completely – it helps so much to be grounded in geography at the start of a book – but not overwhelmed by it!

  3. Belle Brett

    I’m not surprised to have such a tellingly illustrated post about the importance of geography in writing from you, Lisa! I can’t wait until your book comes out with its gritty description of North Cambridge back in the day. Setting as character. Thank you!

    • Lisa Birk

      Thanks so much, all. And Belle, thanks for your kind note, especially since you have read about 4000 versions of the lead (and every other aspect!!!).

  4. Candy

    I love this! Add to it, To Kill a Mockingbird… The first chapter is all setting and sets the reader up for the entire novel: “Maycomb was a tired, old town…” Beautiful commentary!

  5. Some of my favorite books are books that make me feel like they have taken me somewhere entirely new in addition to telling a great story. I really enjoyed this post, and I especially enjoyed the footnotes.

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