Setting the table

Paul Guyot has a great discussion about the importance of setting for a story, and more importantly, how a place you don’t necessarily like can inspire good writing:

I’ve been living in St. Louis for the past year and a half, and before that I had STL on the brain even though I was in LA. I love St. Louis. So the bulk of my writing has been, while not completely St. Louis specific, very Midwest in setting and feel. Not simply because it’s where I am or what I’m familiar with, but because I like it. It inspires me.

But yesterday we cruised into Arizona for the holiday and I found myself inspired by the desert. Which surprised me because Arizona is the place I spent the first 20+ years of my life – awful years – and have had no desire to return.

But as I traveled around looking at the town I used to live in, and thinking all these negative thoughts – God, no matter how they try and dress it up, this place is still nothing but a border town; I could never live here again; This weather sucks… – my writer brain kicked in and I started thinking about story and setting. Suddenly, how awful the place was for me personally was perfect for a story or two.

It seems to me that this "negative inspiration" makes a lot more sense than it would intuitively, because when you dislike or are at least ambivalent about a particular place, that brings about conflict, which brings about story.

Setting in general fascinates me because I struggle with it constantly. I suppose I get around it – at least in my own mind – by sticking to a more minimalist approach as possible and having characters react to setting as a way of description, but sometimes I think everything I write exists in a bizarre vacuum and I can’t add any color to it. I hope I’ll be able to solve that, or if I can’t, then I’ll stick to what I think are strengths: character and dialogue, and try to bring everything else up to speed.

But on a semi-related note, lately I’ve wondered if I should break my unintentional block of writing something set in Canada. I’m not sure how this happened, though I suspect something along the lines of "too boring" is the underlying reason (or that I prefer to transplant the prevailing themes and conflicts to other places, which might be the same thing.) But there’s something about Montreal, or even Northern Quebec, that’s begun to call to me, so that should be fun to explore at some point in the future.