Creating the Perfect Setting - Part I

by Alex Keegan

It was a dark and stormy night...

This is one of the most ridiculed openings, not because once upon a time it didn't work, but because too many people have written their own version of it. And yet setting, the weather, landscape, the opening scene, can often lay out the feel and tone of a book brilliantly, and create an instant context, often a time-stamp, a fixed point which helps the reader find the correct emotional stance to absorb the work.

The first I heard of the beach was in Bangkok, on the Khao San Road. Khao San Road was backpacker land. Almost all the buildings had been converted into guest-houses, there were long-distance telephone booths with air-con, the cafes showed brand-new Hollywood films on video, and you couldn't walk ten feet without passing a bootleg-tape stall. The main function of the street was a decompression chamber for those about to leave or enter Thailand, a halfway house between East and West.
--Alex Garland: The Beach

Note here that we don't just get setting but also information, some explicit, but a lot implicit. We are introduced to the world of the backpacker and might reasonably expect the beach to be the focus of the book, and we get strong hints about East meets (or maybe doesn't) West. The book's central message is hidden here in the opening, Westerners finding a paradise and corrupting it.

As David Lodge pointed out in The Art of Fiction, a distinctive sense of place was not always a feature of prose fiction. From the classics through to the London of Defoe or Fielding, the cityscape was barely mentioned and Paris, London, Rome were interchangeable.

But then came the Romantic movement and poets began to consider landscape and its psychological and emotional effects on the psyche, and by the time Dickens wrote Great Expectations, the dark and stormy night was centre-stage and the lowering trees, the hooting, wailing graveyard night of the frightened Pip is a masterpiece of atmospheric setting.

Unfortunately, the first thing some writers did was to overwhelm the reader with masses of descriptive detail, often using description only as a warm-up to the rest of the book. Here would be the place (ten pages) and then a story would begin. Often, sadly, the reader was already asleep. Read Sir Walter Scott for one example of this, or some of Thomas Hardy. Failing that, pick up a random sample of losing short stories from any competition!

But Charles Dickens could lay the description on thick and yet not bore us to sleep. Why?

Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots making a soft, black drizzle, with flakes of soot as big as full-grown snowflakes - gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs indistinguishable in mire. Horses scarcely better, splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers jostling one another's umbrellas, in a general infection of ill-temper, and losing their foot-holds at street corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if it ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping, and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwhales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little 'prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over parapets into the nether sky of fog, with fog all around them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds.

Dickens' description here is full of wonderful images and fabulous language, but more importantly, this mud and fog turns out to have direct literary purpose, when Dickens leads us to the Lord Chancellor and the total legal mess of those times..

Never can there come a fog too thick, never can there come mud and mire too deep, to assort with the groping and floundering condition which this High Court of Chancery, most pestilent of hoary sinners, holds, this day, in the sight of heaven and earth. On such an afternoon, if ever, the Lord Chancellor ought to be sitting here -- as here he is -- with a foggy glory round his head, softly fenced-in with crimson cloth and curtains, addressed by a large advocate with great whiskers, a little voice, and an interminable brief and outwardly directing his contemplation to the lantern in the roof, where he can see nothing but fog.

You, know, I don't know why, but I get this feeling that Charles doesn't really like the legal system and even less so the Lord Chancellor, and I sort of have the feeling that this book will be about the corrupt, foggy, muddy mess called litigation London, 1853.

It's a fact of modern life that setting is delivered quickly with flashes of light in film or on television and the 99% of people who go to the movies or watch TV now expect the quick, often powerful fix. Think of the superb rooftop-floating opening to West Side Story, or the splendid start to The Sound of Music, the stunning desert scenes of Lawrence of Arabia or the claustrophobic noir of Seven. Add music and the competition is tough!

The key to how good the setting, milieu, description, the weather is: does it merely describe, or does it do many things? Does it reflect the protagonist's emotional state, does it herald things to come, does it set us up to be frightened, uplifted, sensuous? Does it fit?

For example, if we were about to write a romantic or erotic scene we would be unlikely to begin with screaming winds and rain lashing the windows. We've come to expect horrible weather to mean danger or horror.

Setting can be a crucial element of a character's progress throughout a story. If the setting matches his character - he's in his natural place - then one set of possibilities arise, but if he is displaced from a natural setting to an incongruous one, his interaction with that setting offers us ways of highlighting his basic personality, belief-set as well as maybe exposing the unwritten rules of the new environment. Often the learning goes both ways, the city-slickers learn from the good ol' virtues of the country-boy, the kid from the sticks learns how to get certain things done. McCloud worked because the cowboy sheriff was displaced, Crocodile Dundee had something extra when Dundee was removed to the craziness of New York.

Writers have to think of setting. Do they want to bland it out so it's not a crucial character in the work, do they want to create a setting so powerful it affects everyone and everything, or is it a setting which adds colour and interest but in terms of its power and effect lies somewhere between the unimportant and the overwhelming?

With a series character like Caz Flood, my Brighton cop, there are in a sense three settings: Brighton, "Little London by the Sea", a great cosmopolitan town, John Street Police Station and the social world of cops, and Caz's separate world of her boyfriend and her friends like Moira. In each setting Caz is a different person, but in each the other Cazzes lurk. The ongoing dilemmas of Caz's life lie in her trying to reconcile her different needs, career, running, a love life.

Say "San Fransisco" and most people will think of the Golden Gate bridge, trolley-cars, Fisherman's Wharf and "gay capital". When I chose to set the Caz Flood novels in Brighton, its reputation as a gay city was important since part of the plot was that the killings should initially be seen as done by a serial-killer attacking gay men. Had the book been set in a city with a low incidence of public gayness, the investigation would have been different.

The opening chapter of Cuckoo begins with Caz out on a long run. Here we get character and setting inter-twined but economically delivered.

Cold Monday morning, six o'clock. November. Brighton sea-front had to be grey, windswept and damp. It was, but as far as Caz Flood was concerned, it was the only place, the perfect place to be. Yesterday she had been a beat copper, a woodentop, today she was a DC, a detective constable, and nothing, but absolutely nothing, could stop her now.

This is a typical grey British day, but Caz is juxtaposed against it, "taking it on" full of spunk, going for an early run (showing her athletic routine) and the reader is drip-fed her personal setting, her apartment, her street, the sea-front, the hotels, that are part of her milieu. But later in Cuckoo, Caz is on a downer. She's made some serious mistakes and decides to take some leave, gets drunk at lunch-time, then wanders the streets:

The afternoon was flat, grey and ordinary, not much wind, not too cold, not actually raining. It was very 'British winter', very 'Brighton'. The reflecting shops on the hill were just ticking over, white-coated assistants in slow-frame passing soft bread rolls in paper bags to solitary customers. Doors opened with pinging bells. A car puttered slowly up the road. The town was pale and pastel, relaxing, breathing in short, shallow breaths, trying to conserve its body-fat while it waited for spring.

Not only are we getting "setting" but we are putting a space between the first two-thirds of the book, (intense police-procedural Caz among many cops) and the change-of-pace-and-tone final third, (Caz alone and without back-up, breaking rules, in serious danger). Caz goes on for a meal, gets even more drunk, she is dark and depressed and the weather follows her mood, the total feel of the narrative darkens. Here the setting (and weather) reflects the plot.

She passed the Brighton Centre and the cream-fronted Grand Hotel. The night was quickly blacker and the rain began to sweep at the buildings off the sea, She hunched forward, her eyes on the sidewalk six feet in front of her. The thick folds of paper felt uncomfortable against her ribs and she shifted them slightly, cursing her luck. If she hadn't had a liqueur coffee she'd've been home ten minutes ago and would've missed getting wet. Ah but hadn't Gabrielle charmed her so delightfully? God, he must have been devastating when he was a few years younger. The old Romeo! Absent-mindedly she wondered what sort of lover he would have made. The she was at the bottom of her street. Yuch! It was foul now; she ducked her head even lower. Someone was running down towards the sea trying to avoid the rain. She saw the light-coloured coat and some dark instinct flashed through her. But it was too late.

Here, just like a filmmaker might have progressed the back-drop from dull to heavy, so has the author (now it is a dark and stormy night!) we've shifted the backdrop, isolated Caz and now our setting is Pip's graveyard, or the moors from Wuthering Heights and Caz is in trouble. She's attacked, left for dead. Here the setting an atmosphere slowly moves us into the area where we are able to accept the attack on Caz. Had the attack happened in broad daylight in the main street without any setting-up, we would not have been convinced it was real.

Find out more about settings in Part II.

Alex Keegan British Crime and Literary Fiction Author Alex Keegan is publisher and editor of the British literary magazine, Seventh Quark. He is creator of the five Caz Flood novels: Cuckoo (Headline Books, St. Martin's Press), Vulture, Kingfisher, Razorbill (Headline Books) and A Wild Justice (Piatkus Books) which all feature feisty female private investigator Catherine "Caz" Flood. Cuckoo was published in the U.S. by St Martin's Press, and was nominated for an Anthony Award as best first novel.

His prize-winning short stories have been featured in numerous publications including Mystery and Manners, BBC Radio 4, Blue Moon Review, Southern Ocean Review, and The Atlantic. He is a Contributing Editor for The Internet Writing Journal. His blog can be found here.

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