Creating the Perfect Setting - Part IIby Alex Keegan
The Internet Writing Journal, December 1998
In Part One of "Creating the Perfect Setting" I showed an excerpt from Cuckoo:
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.
Strictly, although this gives setting, it's not that part of the story which sets the milieu; the specific surroundings here are transient and the setting being employed is more a mood-changer. The passage was used to buffer between two parts of the novel, one harder, formalised, police procedural, the second more informal, thriller country. But also we were reflecting on Caz and her mood: detached, slightly in shock, half-drunk about to get very drunk.
We all know that if we're in love and walking hand in hand in the rain, the rain is neutral or a joy. But if it's the morning after we've lost a partner, or a fortune, then that rain is following you, you know it, I know it, the world knows it. God, and that cloud in particular, is stalking you. It's obvious.
The pathetic fallacy, that the weather knows us or is out to get us or that it reflects our mood may be wrong if we bottom-line things, but is it emotionally wrong, is it the wrong way to consider things as novelists? If I Write that the weather is out to get me, and my readers can empathise and sympathise, am I doing a good or a bad thing? Who cares what's right or wrong from the detached, scientific point of view? Isn't it my job to communicate emotions?
In this passage from Kingfisher, Caz is going out for a run, very early, she's depressed and feels impotent. It's a little long for a quote but reflects mood and tone, the pathetic fallacy while summing up the novel ready for the thrust into the final third.
It was shit outside, but this was Brighton in January, at ten-past five in the morning; shit wasn't exactly optional. As she set off, she shuddered, neon-buzzed mist in her face, her ears tingling. When she got to the sea-front, little but moonlight opened up the sea with only a changing darkness marking the waves. Her breath began as cold salt as she settled into her running but soon she flowed and a veil of warmth went with her.
She cruised past quiet bed-sits, a few lights, then failed holiday apartments now let to DHSS clients, the only place they could go, cold and miserable. Briefly, she wondered about the dispossessed, the single-mothers somewhere inside, huddling in the half-darkness, listening to drips, their children crying.
Caz had done the odd favour for the homeless and the battered; had offered a hand, turned a blind eye; but somewhere along the line she had drifted back from them, preferring instead to catch villains to salve her conscience. It wasn't that she didn't care, but sometimes she had felt as if she was trying to empty a slowly-filling lake with a tea-spoon.
What made it all worse was knowing that these buildings were money machines. Somewhere, other human beings slept warm and comfortable while the DHSS busily fed them names and money. Caz was convinced there was nothing she could do and she hated feeling powerless. She kicked on hard for a fast half-mile, trying not to think, but the thoughts still intruded. She wondered, where did these landlords socialise? Then, running even harder, she asked herself, 'Does it matter?' Then she wondered again, and did they step over the homeless as they left the opera?
This was supposed to be a smooth-easy run but her mental state was making her push and rest. A mile later, Queen Victoria's statue was behind her and she'd forgotten the disenfranchised, the under-class, pulling to the surface instead those things she felt she could, Crown Prosecution Service notwithstanding, do something about. A simmering annoyance with Claire Bullen now energised her. As she ran, she once again wondered what it was all about. She wondered what could have happened, what chain of events there could have been to explain Claire's behaviour.
She pushed again as she skirted Southwick, thinking about Daniel Cook. Approaching the Adur Bridge, she first cursed her original offer to help him, then cursed him. Somewhere inside her head, she was making an unwritten contract to repay all debts owed. It had occurred to her that Claire's disappearance might, in the end, have an odd but innocent explanation, but as she reached the bridge, her guts told her that it wouldn't.
It was still a long way from being day and the quarter-light being thrown weakly out by shop-signs, garages and occasional street-lamps barely reached down as far as the ebbed river, the grey-green mud. As she jogged down from the bridge, the houseboats loomed half-silhouettes, their colours just different shades of dark grey. A tiny light bloomed on board the boat where she'd met the thin American, the man with the fabulous eyes.
She was moving at her most efficient now, with maybe eighty-five per cent effort, something around six minutes-fifteen miling. One car passed her on the island loop, lighting her up and then throwing her into darkness. It occurred to her that maybe the route was a little bit dangerous, both from cars not expecting her and night wanderers, creeps that might be expectant, waiting, not for her, not particularly, but still waiting, like a clam waits, like a Moray Eel waits, until something comes fatally close and with a snap is gone, never existed.
Again, she suddenly felt angry at the Cook-Bullen-Hacht triad. They pissed around with their silly little games while Pixie Walters was still missing. She had last been known somewhere near here; had passed near here; had maybe gone missing near here. Caz was able to imagine Pet Walters dead. No matter how hard she ran, that thought was not going to go away.
Here Caz's mood, the particular claustrophobia of the story, Brighton's seedier side, the various protagonists are all brought together in the morning fog. It's thinking time for me the writer and Caz, and I suspect, for the reader and this consolidation/rest-break is given a mood and setting. Perhaps this could be Caz at a party standing on a sunny balcony, but her mood (and mine) was definitely a five-in-the-morning mood and as such, to send her for a run (typical of her) in the area where so much of the plot has taken place and will continue, re-establishing the tone, seems right.
And it's tone and attitude that I want to come on to now. David Lodge has pointed out that though we may talk about tone, POV, setting, character or whatever, of course all these arbitrary divisions overlap.
In the passage above we have setting, atmosphere, mood and tone. But we also have Caz's character and a re-iteration of key points in the plot. That is, like most published writing, every passage serves more than one purpose.
Lois Peterson, an emerging English-Canadian writer was a recent winner in a competition I judged, with her story, "Hair Games".
"Hair Games" opened with a daughter talking to her mother, about to cut her hair. Even with this opening, the story was a winner, but the dialogue as we first read it, was disembodied, without a context, and at that moment quite innocuous. When World Wide Writers offered to publish the story I suggested a simple edit. The story revolves around a mother mentally "moving on" from her husband's death. The dialogue refers to her deciding to cut her long and beautiful hair and as a symbol and actuality it works well. But to precede this discussion with the death, in my opinion, set up the correct tone and mood. That is we were more clearly signalled as to our appropriate "mood of absorption".
So Lois opened her story simply.
My father died seven weeks ago. He rose from his old prairie chair, kissed my mother and gave her braid a light tug.
"I'm tired," he said, "feel like a cold coming on. I'll have a lie down before supper. Call me?"
"I will dear," she said, not looking up from the apples she was peeling. When she went to tell my father to wash for dinner, my mother found him dead, fully clothed on their bed. He had folded the quilt in quarters down to the foot of the bed, paired his shoes alongside. The curtains were half-drawn, traffic hissing on the wet road outside.
Here we have setting, but it's a setting of mood, as I see it. There is a contract being made, the reader is under little illusion as to the type of story about to unfold. Now, when the dialogue comes it has an increased profundity. After this opening we learn how much the husband loved his wife's hair, how he would brush it and she would sing. Then the dialogue begins:
Now my mother wants me to cut her hair, "Take it off, all of it," she says.
"Oh the usual should do it," I tell her. "It's a bit thin at the ends, but once that's off, it'll be fine.
The dialogue continues almost for a page, but now it isn't just about a haircut. The words are charged because we know the husband is dead. We know, from understanding good writing that there is meaning in the dialogue. When it comes first we don't have that meaning. That is the setting (psychological setting, mood, tone, way of seeing) alters either the meaning directly or the way we read and assimilate that meaning.
One of my very early stories, "Postcards from Balloonland" was about a man who knew he was going to die, taking his kids to Disney. It opened with three postcards, one from each of his two older children, one from his wife. After we get the text of his cards, we get him, a context and he posts the cards back to England. Since the story revolves around balloons and postcards this opening was important to me but the story (also too long, needing an edit) kept being rejecting and failing in competitions. Until one day I chose to put two lines of bold italic centered text before the postcards, the content of which, like Lois Peterson's hair-cutting dialogue, is "tame".
The two liner was:
There are things we should say, things we should not. And there are things we want to say but have never learned how.
The story immediately made a final and a small prize, then won $800 runner up prize in another competition and thereafter reprinted in Canada and the US. And just two lines transformed it!
Why? I think because the two-liner says, "What comes next might look quiet but it will be profound, it will matter. Trust me." In a sense, this is like those stories you think have ordinary openings but the author's name is famous. For those with big names, they can promise profundity and meaning simply by reputation. They get more attention. We who still seek that elevated status have to apply tricks of creating import, mood, ways of seeing.
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.