The Stupid 365 Project, Day 57: Setting the Setting

November 26th, 2010

Okay, I’m here.

Despite the picture up there, the sky is as blue as a bachelor’s button. That little flock of clouds is over to the West, where the sun is in the act of packing it in for 12 hours.  In the past 30 minutes, the temperature has dropped 15 degrees.

I’m in one of the world’s nicest coffee houses, the oddly named Wonder Garden.  Everything I could want: great coffee; fast, free wi-fi; a view of a mostly empty desert street in one direction and those hills up there in the other. Comfortable chairs, tables of the right height for a keyboard. Unfortunate music, by which I mean big-hat country.  I love country, but not this country.

By the way, anyone who condescends to Taylor Swift needs an ear transplant.  She wrote “Invisible” and “The Best Day” when she was eighteen, okay?  She was writing great songs at fourteen. If she keeps it together and stays away from John Mayer and all the other John Mayers (John Mayer was the model for Doug), she’ll amaze us (well, me, anyway) for thirty years.

One of the things I’ve left out of PULPED is the quality of the light up here, how hard it is.  Details are sharp, shadows have edges that look pencilled, the sky is China blue straight overhead, paling toward the horizons.  The sun feels closer.  I’ve been here two hours and I’m already feeling the difference between the amount of work I put into describing Bangkok in the Poke books versus the effort I’ve put into Joshua Tree (actually, Twentynine Palms) in PULPED — or, for that matter, the San Fernando Valley in CRASHED.

I think it might be because I still have the “lookit” impulse about Bangkok — as long as I’ve been living there, it still makes my jaw drop.  But so does Joshua Tree, and, in its own way, the Valley.  Maybe I should imagine that I’m writing about those locations for a Thai readership, just to prevent myself from taking for granted a shared frame of reference that would make me skip, or miss entirely, the single detail that might make a whole page work better.

This might be a writing principle I should follow: Write the setting as though no reader has never seen it. Why not?  If I over-describe, there’s always the delete key.  Thinking about CRASHED, there are only really a few descriptive passages of the valley, the best of them on the drive from Wattles’ place to Trey’s, a nice conjunction of an awful little strip mall with some pepper trees — hold on while I find it:

I made the turn, past what has become a normal Valley strip mall: dry cleaner, Mexican restaurant, Korean restaurant, liquor store, massage parlor, check cashing outlet.  Then there were pepper trees on either side of the road, old ones, trailing long green streamers to the ground.

There should be more of that.  Unless a book takes place entirely inside the characters’ heads, there should probably always be more of that.  Place should be a character, and if it’s not, then that should be a conscious decision on the writer’s part, not just a thoughtless omission.  Material isn’t that easy to come by, and it’s stupid not to write the physical environment, not only because it provides a sort of visual lattice for the reader, but also because it’s full of story potential.

I’m talking to myself here — this isn’t intended as advice to other writers.  It’s something I should just keep in mind. The question is valid at all times: Where are we? Just because the location isn’t “exotic,” just because it’s not something I’d instinctively point a camera at, that doesn’t mean it’s not interesting.  In fact, if it’s not interesting, why the hell am I writing about it?

This is an important message for PULPED.  I’ve put a lot of effort into describing the mystery/thriller limbo Simeon is stuck in, in part because you’ve obviously never seen it, in part because describing it in detail helps me to see it, and in part just because it’s fun.  But the Twentynine Palms Madison occupies is a sandy, dusty, fragmentary, ugly little town that just happens to be over a rise of hills from one of the world’s most spectacular landscapes.  But the reader needs to see Twentynine Palms just as clearly as se (remember se?  I thought not.) sees Simeon’s limbo.

So I’ve already had one insight about the book, and I haven’t even unpacked yet.

9 Responses to “The Stupid 365 Project, Day 57: Setting the Setting”

  1. Laren Bright Says:

    I think you made a great point about writing for readers as though they’ve never seen the place. That was my first though when you said how much you described Bangkok. Yeah,w e take the Valley for granted. Obviously, we shouldn’t.

    Go forth & be productive.

  2. Gary Says:

    More descriptions.

    More photos.

    More!

    (please)

  3. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    I couldn’t have said it better-actually, I couldn’t begin to say it, but the landscape and setting is so important to me. I get to travel, and then “see” places I won’t, and get a feel for the place and story in how they play out together. Your pictures are awe-some. I read somewhere that Joshua is a place of magic. It certainly looks that way, and thank you again for doing this.

  4. Suzanna Says:

    Hi, Tim

    Happy the desert scenery is stimulating a new way of thinking about your work.

    Thanks for the pic and the update!

  5. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, Laren, and thanks — I don’t think we should take anything granted if we’re going to all the trouble of writing it. What I don’t know is why this didn’t occur to me 20 years ago. And obviously, one can go overboard on this – setting should frame and be integrated into the story, not elbow it aside for snapshots. (Sorry to be so didactic — I’m sort of thinking out loud.)

    Thank you, Gary — I just came down out of the Monument with some more pix and will post them later this evening.

    Hi, Lil — It’s hard to take a bad picture of Joshua Tree. The big problem is scale — the rock structures are insanely big and there’s no easily available yardstick to demonstrate that short of posing someone in front of it, and (a) I’m alone, and (b) that turns the photo into a snapshot. Will think about it.

    Sana, at least I’m writing. I had really ground to a halt in the past 4-5 days, and I get really grumpy and anxious and, yes, unendurable when I’m not writing.

  6. EverettK Says:

    And of course, as I’m sure you’re aware, everyone will see the same scenery differently, and HOW they see it (ie, how the narrator describes it) casts a shadow upon the viewpoint character.

  7. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Right, Everett. And even if you write a description that’s at the absolute top of your reach, there’s no guaranteeing that it’ll mean the same thing to the reader that it does to you. David Sedaris says, “Writing gives you the illusion of control, and then you realize it’s just an illusion, that people are going to bring their own stuff into it.” Absolutely. The writer can control the order in which the reader sees/experiences something, but not the emphasis se gives to it, no matter how we try. (I’m going to keep using “se” until people get really irritated.)

  8. Jaden Says:

    Tim, this comes at absolutely the perfect time, as I’m at that stage in my new book where people are floating around in a gray haze (or maybe in front of the blue screen) and I really need to bring them down to earth and PUT them somewhere.

    (Sigh) Oh to be able to do that as well as you do.

  9. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, Jaden. Boy, do I know about that. It’s like when people die in a Thirties movie — they stumble around in a fog until the Big Destination Question is answered. Not that dissimilar at all, now that I think about it.

    I have total faith that you’ll put them right where they should be, if emphatically not where they want to be. That would really be the end of fiction, wouldn’t it? All the characters exactly where they want to be. “How are you?” “Fine, and you?” “Just fine.”

    Not exactly a pulse-pounder.

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