A post for writers – the place of setting in fiction and how to use it to the greatest advantage

(This is the transcript of a lecture I gave at Waikato University last year – 2015)
I’m going to talk today about the place of setting in fiction, and how to use it to the greatest advantage.
As an author of nine published novels (and one in a drawer and one a work in progress!) and a teacher of novel writing for the last eight years, I’ve had to think really hard about story over that time, and how all the separate elements build to make a satisfying whole. I’ve come up with a kind of formula, a way of thinking, that I find very useful in the planning of a piece of writing.
Okay, so let’s start by tackling that word ‘planning!’ I know there are many writers out there who say they don’t really plan, believing in organic process. That’s fine. I tend to think non-planners fall into one of three categories: 1) they have a natural sense of structure and story that is so innate they don’t need to make it a conscious act; 2) they have written so much that they are now ‘expert’, in the sense of no longer having to consciously work through the process step by step; or 3) they start off and then get into one hell of a mess, because they have no idea of where they’re going or what they’re trying to say! Sadly, with a lot of new writers, they mainly fall into the third category!
Years ago, when I was training to work with kids with learning disabilities, we did one of those pop science-type tests to see which parts of our brain we relied on most. The choices, from memory were: creative, feeling, logic, planning and intuitive and we were asked to answer a whole lot of questions and then map the results on a chart. The idea was (and proved to be) that most people use a selection of all these processes, and that those who perform best have a balance across all five areas. Indeed, most of my classmates did. I, however, had big spikes over creative, feeling and intuitive, a TINY blip over planning and NOTHING for logic! My family, I reckon, could probably have told them that without me sitting the test! But it was an eye opener for me, as I am actually a very organised person – and it allowed me to see how crucial that little blip of planning was to how I function! So why am I telling you this? Because what I’m about to explain is just my ‘take’ on how to tackle writing, and may well not be yours. However, I have found that for budding writers, it is extremely helpful to give this style of thinking/planning a go.
My goal, when I’m writing, is to create a piece of fiction that works on numerous levels, with layers of meaning that reveal themselves the more someone engages in the reading process. This kind of layering takes planning, in order to make it truly integrated. For me, it always starts with an idea – a theme, if you like – the burning thing I want to say. I’ve not much time for beautiful words on a page if they don’t have something to say. I believe the books that stay alive over decades and centuries are the ones that tackle the big questions of human existence and behaviour. This doesn’t have to happen in a big flashy way, some sort of literature equivalent to a blockbuster (esp. as some blockbusters are big on flashiness and rather short on intelligent discourse!) or an epic Lord of the Rings type story, it can be in a very small, domestic story, such as John Banville’s beautiful study of grief, The Sea. But it has to have some kind of pressure point that needles away at the character and, if it is truly exceptional, actually leaves the reader changed in some way on a profound level – in either their values, understanding of an issue, empathy, anger, disgust … some core intellectual – but also, perhaps even more importantly, emotional – response.
When I’m struck by an idea that I want to work with, the whole process from initial decision to start working on idea to a finished draft is roughly a year. Of that year, the first two or three months are taken up with thinking and learning (via research) as deeply as I can dig into all the issues. I think of the end product as like the visible part of an iceberg – there is more, much more, lying below the surface that the reader never sees, but which is totally necessary to keep the berg afloat. And this process works by asking oneself a series of questions that are vital.
What is it I’m trying to say? This is the end point of the story. I believe you MUST know the end before you start the journey, or you’ll get lost along the way. This doesn’t mean you can’t take side-roads along the way to see where you end up, but it does mean that you still keep your eye on the final destination.
Once I have really figured out the answer to this then the next question is: who is the best person to tell this story? Who you choose to narrate your story affects how you express your big idea, and how the reader will grasp the more subtle nuances you’re trying to impart. For example: before I started writing my book Smashed, I knew I wanted to talk about the consequences of date rape. Now if I had chosen to write the book from the point of view of the female victim, the main focus would have been the consequences of the rape itself on the victim, full stop. But by choosing to make the main point of view character her brother, and best friend of the perpetrator, it allowed me to talk about a whole lot more: male attitudes to rape, the ‘ripple effect’ – where one action initiates a whole lot of other equally damaging actions, the bonds of family, the responsibility of friends etc., etc. It also widened the potential audience, speaking to young men as well as young women. (As an aside, this book has been used to ignite discussions with young people around such issues – and has been very powerful in its effects.)
It’s important when thinking about ‘populating’ a story, that at the core of all drama lies conflict – internal and external. If you want to write a book that looks at the dangers of deep sea oil drilling, yes, you could tell it from the obvious point of view, that of a protestor, but you could equally tell if from the point of view of someone drilling, and explore their internal conflict as some terrible environmental disaster unfolds and they start to see the light. The first gives the reader a model of empowerment, the second provides a thought process that leads the reader from accepting one point of view to another. Or it could be the rebellious teenage daughter of the oil baron, who watches as the devastation unfolds – another perspective again, which now also encompasses family conflict as well and that perennial issue of children breaking away from the ingrained values of their parents – a nice subplot. See how this crucial decision can add extra layering, by thinking outside the square?
Now the next decision is where does this take place? And when? This is crucial, and this is what we’ll concentrate on today. There are other decisions that come after that, such as point of view, attitude and voice. But let’s stop at setting for now.
The setting you choose, and the time-scale, impacts directly on character. It informs everything the character knows, does and says. Someone who is brought up in 21stcentury New York city slums is going to think, talk and react very differently from someone raised in an igloo in eastern Siberia back last century.
Let me give you a solid example. In my book The Crossing, the first of my Blood of the Lamb trilogy, my central character is raised in a very specific set of circumstances. She is a native of a small island in the west Pacific, born several generations after an apocalyptic event which, so far as the island’s inhabitants know, has left them as the sole survivors on the planet. At the time of this event, a cruise ship of rich white Europeans founded on their reef, providing the native population with much needed medical supplies and food. Over time, this elite set themselves up as leaders of a religious cult that enslaves the native population.
My girl, Maryam, undergoes a ceremony as a two year old, when her blood is tested for clotting with that of the Holy Father of the Apostles of the Lamb. When it doesn’t clot she is taken from her family and raised on a small atoll with other girls who test the same, told she is one of the Chosen, special, and will one day (upon reaching puberty) cross to the Holy City (the now rotting cruise ship) to serve the great Apostles, which is seen as a great privilege. The only book she has ever read is the Bible. She knows of nothing outside of the small (primitive, technology free) island where she has been raised, and believes nothing exists outside of this.
How does this set up affect the telling of the story? First off, it dictates voice. With the Bible as her only influence, her speech and thoughts have an archaic ring to them, and her points of reference come from its text. Her choice of metaphors and similes can only be drawn from the Bible or from the island environment and animals around her.
She had never felt so enclosed before, the ceiling pressing down on her as they walked through the empty corridors, their footsteps deadened by the strange worn fabric matting on the floor. The air smelt damp and musty, not unlike the bath-house after winter rains and, mixing with the cloying scent of goat’s blood, it caught in her throat. . .
. . .Maryam stepped out into an enormous space, as big as the whole compound she’d just left. Nothing could have prepared her for this glorious sight. She tiptoed over the smooth stone floor, amazed by the vein-like seams that ran through the perfectly cut squares, and at the range of patterns and shades embedded there. But it was the vast ceiling — higher by many, many times than the tallest point of the maneaba — that stole her breath. Great circles of gold, inlaid with iridescent flower shapes, shimmered like the finest mother-of-pearl. And the colours! Soft glowing golds, pale cloudy creams, blues brighter than clear skies on a sunny day, the yellow of soft sunsets, the hazy pinks and lavenders of sweetest dawn. The only other place she’d ever seen anything remotely like this was the one small coloured window in the chapel by the bay. This, indeed, was made by the Lord. It had to be. A wide sweeping stairway, bordered by solid ropes the silver of fish scales and framed by two tall palm trees, led to a circular raised platform from which other steps and walkways bloomed. High above, Maryam could see people moving in and out of doorways, yet this expansive floor where she stood right now was empty, save for her. The desire to climb that magical stairway grew too strong to resist, and she slipped up the cool stone steps until she stood at the very heart of the circular platform and looked up. High above, amidst the patterns and swirl of the domed ceiling, she saw herself reflected back in countless fractured copies. Her face, still streaked with blood, looked unfamiliar, nervous and very small. Perhaps this was how the Lamb saw her as He looked down? . . . (The Crossing ©Mandy Hager 2009)
The fact that she’s on an island, with no technology and no belief of anything outside that world impacts on her story too. Once she’s crossed, and she realises that if she stays she’ll end up milked of blood until she’s dead, what are her alternatives? She’s stuck there. She has no comprehension of the possibilities beyond.
Compare this to placing a savvy street kind from New York city 2025 who finds herself in the same situation! A whole different voice, reference list and choice of actions.
Now it becomes my job to build this world and make it as believable as I can. I have to come up with the rules and laws for it, the myths, the beliefs, the power structures, and visualise how people live there, what they look like and how they act. In this case that meant a great deal of research into the native flora and fauna and culture indigenous to the west Pacific. Therefore I picked Kirbati as my reference point, as its language and culture are not particularly well known, but there is information out there if you search. I found an online translator for the language (Gilbertese), lists of native fauna and flora and their indigenous names. I stockpiled images. I listened to recordings of local birdsong, so I could replicate the sound with words. I listened to the sound of surf on reefs. I researched how to build the traditional manebas they used for ceremonial and community gatherings. I studied how to weave pandanus leaves and how to rig a wooden raft. And, through a very lucky break, I spent three weeks in Fiji, soaking in real tropical Pacific life and taking notes.
I also wangled my way onto a media tour of a brand new cruise ship, taking note of the dimensions, which are impossible to guess just from looking at photos, and how things smelt, the quality of carpets and drapes, the length and feel of the corridors, the decorative features, the kind of books in the library, the different uniforms worn by the different kinds of crew. And when the journos started asking questions of the captain about entertainment etc., I was asking how much water could be produced on board, how the internal plumbing worked, what backup power generation they used, how well equipped their medical facilities were… I think they thought I was planning some terrible crime, made worse by the fact it was only a couple of years after the Sept 11 attacks, so it had already taken a lot of fast talking to be allowed on board. In fact, I’d had to undergo a police check and presentation of my passport before I could!  But I took lots of photos too, seeking out the weird little details that help to bring a description alive – and which lift it above standard stereotypical photos posted online to something that felt more authentic, more quirky, more real.
A writer has to be a detective and an investigator, an eavesdropper and a thief. We have to be constantly on the lookout for the interesting, the unusual, the detail … we have to view the world from an outsider’s standpoint, looking at objects, places and behaviour as if we’re alien anthropologists, seeing everything through fresh eyes. When I was in Europe last year I noticed a used sanitary pad on the stairway of the Vatican! I eavesdropped as an English tourist was picked by a very smooth Italian man! I peered over people’s fences, snuck down side roads, eyeballed police who were harassing African youths.
In the second book of the trilogy, Maryam and three others escape the island, first ending up on an island which is no longer populated, but which has the remains of a crumbling Buddhist temple on it.  Again, the job is to describe this through the eyes of a person who has never seen anything like it before, and who brings all sorts of religious prejudice and fear to it. I find I use images a lot to first help me imagine myself into a particular place if I can’t actually get to walk through it. And then I close my eyes, and actually view it as if I was viewing a film, walking through it, noting the details that emerge – a feat of creative imagination, that also involves focus on the other senses as well. What can I hear? What can I smell? What can I feel?
… The boys veered off their direct route towards the stone gateway that led down to the beach and headed, instead, for the parapeted building at the heart of the complex. They huddled in its doorway and waited for Maryam and Ruth to catch them up. Inside, a wide entrance hall was flanked by the shattered stairwells of the two frontal towers, its once smooth tiled floor littered with the accumulated debris of wind and time: crumbling stone, dried leaves and dirt, stinking mounds of bird droppings and feathers. A host of parasitic plants sprouted from fractures in the floor and walls, as if they’d pushed up through the earth to rightfully reclaim what once was theirs — their florid display at odds with the dull brown stone of the structure that supported them. Rain leaked in through the cracks to form puddles that snaked through the filthy flagstones in dusty streams.
Rows of thick stone pillars formed the backbone of the building. The two most elaborately carved of them stood at the entrance to a gloomy room beyond the hall. Maryam, Joseph, Lazarus and Ruth edged towards it in silence. Something about the decayed majesty of the building and the stifling gloom set their nerves on edge. Maryam’s head pounded in time with her heart as they stepped over the threshold and tried to take in the dimensions of the room.
It was an enormous space, almost as big as the atrium of the Holy City, Star of the Sea. The flagstones had been laid in symmetrical patterns, and a pathway of darker stone drew them in towards the raised dais at the far end. There, in the dull half-light, a huge stone figure looked down upon them. He sat cross-legged on the dais — the same calm-faced man Maryam had seen depicted on the carved reliefs outside. His hands, lying open on his knees, were spread as though to beckon the four unexpected guests; a secret smile seemed to hover on his pronounced lips. His eyes were lowered modestly; his chipped stonework face was streaked with dark trails of rain as if he wept.
‘Oh Lord in Heaven!’ Ruth cried out. She alone had stopped staring up at the figure, and was clutching Maryam’s arm so tightly Maryam could feel her pulse fighting against Ruth’s panicked grip. Ruth was pointing a shaky hand at the ground beneath the statue’s broad bare feet.
At first Maryam was not sure what she was looking at. Some kind of tangled mass: a pile of sticks, branches and smooth rounded stones.
Lazarus released a long slow whistle. ‘Meet the former people of Marawa Island,’ he said, his voice barely a whisper above the orchestra of rain.
‘People?’ Yet, even as Maryam spoke, her brain began to make sense of what lay before her. This was not the wind-blown refuse of the jungle — these were bones. Hundreds of them, heaped below the dais and spreading out across the floor to either side. She shook her head, hoping her eyes were playing tricks on her, but when she’d blinked again there was no doubting it: the pile of bones was real.
She looked at Ruth beside her, and they held each other’s gaze. Then Ruth began to speak. ‘And it shall be, if thou forget the Lord thy God, and walk after other gods, and serve them, worship them, I testify against you this day that you shall surely perish.’
Her words struck to the core of Maryam’s doubt. Every time she turned her back on the Apostles’ teaching, it was as though the Lord sent forth new evidence that His words were real. She brushed Ruth’s hand from her arm, so overwhelmed by the dark shadow this new test cast on her spirit she had to escape her friend’s needy grasp.
She backed from the room, unable to tear her eyes from the spectre of the island’s dead: the bleached brittle bones of men and women, old and young, heaped together as if they’d died in one desperate moment, trapped in time. Long leg bones, disconnected at their knobbly joints. Spidery fingers pointing into space. Whole networks of collapsed ribs and twisted tracks of spines. Slick rounded skulls with their hollow eyes and empty nose-holes. And, most heart-wrenching of all, tiny disjointed bundles of bone held tightly in a mother’s dying embrace… (Into the Wilderness ©Mandy Hager 2010)
From this island they end up being detained on a prison island fashioned around the conditions of the detention camps on Nauru, an issue I wanted to give some air. To get the full, ghastly feel of this place I watched videos online, read investigator reports on it from human rights groups, and interviewed a refugee who had lived there for three years before coming to NZ. Interview is a fantastic means for finding specific detail. I could ask him about recurring images, the smells, the sounds at night, the things that most drove him nuts, psychological effects on him and those around him – and any strange things he remembered. He told me about the cats that lived there, about the smells, about a man who sat rocking from dawn till dusk, mentally unhinged, yet only given Panadol because there was no mental health support. 
The scraggly group of children had dispersed, but the cluster of men standing silently beside the fence remained. There must have been a dozen or so dressed in soiled white full-length robes, not unlike the gowns Maryam and the other Chosen wore each Judgement time, and many had their heads wrapped in coiled strips of cloth as well. But this was not what drew her eye or sent her empty stomach churning over in disgust. As she stumbled past, she was appalled to see that each man’s mouth was roughly stitched to hold it shut: crusty ulcerating sores wept into their scruffy beards. Was this the kind of punishment to which the guard referred? She reached out for Ruth’s hand.
It was possible to get some measure of how the camp was ordered as they were led down alleyways formed by blocks of the box-like metal structures. Passing the first doorway, Maryam glimpsed inside: five claustrophobic rooms sectioned into each box, each of them housing up to three or four sleeping mats that barely fitted such a confined space. The smell of decayed eggs was much worse up here on the plateau, and it mixed with the stench of human waste and rubbish to make breathing almost impossible without the urge to gag. Maryam tucked her nose into the collar of her shirt, preferring the assault of her own stale sweat to the putrid air.
Chickens ran riot in and out of the so-called rooms, and mangy dogs lay listlessly in doorways, ribs sticking out against their matted, filthy fur. Sprawled out in the few patches of sunlight between the blocks, lay other animals that Maryam did not recognise: small furry creatures with long scrawny tails. These, too, seemed to lack the will to move.
Everything was covered in a layer of sticky white dust and not a scrap of greenery was visible between the rows. Inside some of the rooms, thin dark-skinned women lay about, barely stirring as the girls walked past. Now they crossed a barren courtyard between the rows of huts. Thick fabric had been slung between the roofs, forming a shade to block the sun. A group of thirty or so women and children sat cross-legged at its centre, listening attentively to a white woman as she showed them how to trace out letters in the dust. They were learning to write, Maryam realised, their thin faces etched with concentration as they formed whole words. It triggered memories of her own childhood on the atoll: her lessons with the Mothers when they learnt to copy out long passages from the Holy Book. Then, she and the other Blessed Sisters had complained about the long hours they were made to spend studying how to read and write; here, the women looked hungry with the desire to learn.
Finally the guard stopped outside one of the metal huts and gestured that they go inside. The space was barely large enough for the three stained sleeping mats that lay upon the floor. It had no windows, only the open doorway through which they’d come to offer any light or relief from the stifling heat.
“This is your new home!” the guard announced. . . (Into the Wilderness ©Mandy Hager 2010)
People are generally really generous if asked to help in a process like this – I don’t think I’ve ever been turned down. And I always make sure that if the book is published I credit them in whatever way they wish. I’ve spoken to policemen about potential crimes and how they would be handled, I’ve been shown right through the arrest process and down into the cells at the Wellington central police station. I’ve interviewed a young man about growing up with a Down Syndrome brother, a good lesson in realising we should never make assumptions – all he talked of were the gifts.
I did my Masters in scriptwriting, and one of the main benefits (the other being that I came away with a really robust understanding of story structure) is that film uses the language of visual symbolism – and fiction writers can do the same. The colours of a landscape or sky send us instinctive messages without ever having to spell it out, what is back of scene can underpin a major theme. Think of the image, in my trilogy, of the rotting cruise ship as Holy City – a symbol of decaying decadence and white privilege; of the collapse of ‘normal’ Western values.
Now I think about it, studying film taught me one other really important lesson too. Film is very much audience focussed – it is designed to shift viewer emotions in a particular way, and the writers are consciously thinking about the accumulative effect on the audience as they write. They have preview screenings to assess reaction, taking note of what engages, what doesn’t, where people laugh, where they cry. I think fiction writer can do this, too – be reader focussed – ask – how do I want the reader to be feeling now? How can I shift that emotion from one place to another? And put together a group of carefully chosen readers who can give honest and targeted responses.
The reason for all this research and the inclusion of symbolic detail is to build up layers, with the goal of each layer adding additional depth and meaning. Just as we might return to watch a film again, and discover things we never noticed the first time, I would like to think that a story can reward the reader in the same way. And, because I generally write for a YA/crossover audience, I try to make sure that as the reader matures, new meanings open up. What is implicit here is that everything is chosen for a reason – chosen purposefully – and if it can’t be justified it shouldn’t be in there. 
Of course, there is also the magical side of writing, for which nothing can be planned. While some people think that planning and structure kill creativity, I believe that it scaffolds the writing and secures it well enough that you feel safe and more confident to engage in flights of fancy. If you have the story in hand and know what you’re doing, you can then allow your creative imagination to flow into the gaps between. When you are spending all your brain energy on problem solving because you haven’t thought something through thoroughly enough, then you can’t induce the kind of meditative state that allows real creative engagement, diving deep into the dreamscape of the work.
There is one final benefit to thinking very hard about the setting and time that your character inhabits, and that relates to the development of the character’s unique voice. I’ve already mentioned about how the use of similes and metaphors flows from this understanding, but the other essential factor to unique voice is the figuring out of the character’s attitudes and values – with the emphasis on attitude. 
A character voice needs an attitude – a unique way of attacking every situation and interaction, in order to create a rounded believable character that feels fully formed. Just as each of us are shaped by our parents behaviours and values, so too are we shaped by the community we were raised in, and the country and society we grew up in as well. These are the things that make us who we are. 
The voice of my character Maryam, in The Crossing, couldn’t be further from my character Ashley in The Nature of Ash.  She has been raised to be obedient, never to question, and is ignorant of the big-world picture outside of her small frame of reference; Ashley is a savvy, politically engaged young man of the near future, rough in his language, smart, funny, feisty. The word choices for each of these characters has to be (literally) worlds apart, both in their external and internal dialogue. And their attitude to various issues should be on display, so they are not a cardboard cut-out but real, screwy, screwed up, believable people who we care about and take the time to follow, because we want to see them safely home.

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