Or do settings set the mood?
I’m not being cute, in a chicken-and-egg sort of way. Clearly in some books the environment and dwellings play just a bit part, while in others they cast such a spell you couldn’t imagine the story anywhere else.
I’ve been thinking about this since I was asked to give a talk at an architectural design firm linking the way writers build environments to suit their characters, not altogether unlike how architects and decorators customize environments to suit their characters.
I remember the trepidation I felt when I first began writing fiction after 15 years in narrative journalism. How do writers create people, and place them in made-up settings that supposedly complement their idiosyncrasies? I could no longer fall back on the excuse, Well, facts are facts, this is just the way it is, to defend writing, say, that a man lived with 50 cats in a house painted black. The entire package of a character’s life had to be believable, and I had to design it that way. Truth was relative; truth was what rang true to the imagination and intuition, not what was backed up by data to be given to the fact-checking department.
I thought of the novels whose distinctive settings stayed with me, years after reading the book, for being not just unforgettable, but critical in molding their characters. Environments that were epic not just because they were vividly drawn, but because they represented very specific emotional landscapes, sometimes packed into very small spaces.
There’s the bare, claustrophobic cottage of Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child (http://www NULL.indiebound NULL.org/book/9780316175678/eowyn-ivey/snow-child), a novel about a mid-life couple who relocated to a rural Alaska farm and found themselves a prisoner of the land, their infertility, and possibly their imagination. There is the brutal Mississippi farm in Hillary Jordan’s Mudbound (http://www NULL.indiebound NULL.org/book/9781565126770), a World War II-era outpost of segregation, loneliness, and violence. And of course the tiny shed that comprised the entire universe for a 5 year old boy in Emma Donogue’s ROOM (http://www NULL.indiebound NULL.org/book/9780316098328/emma-donoghue/room) — right down to Wardrobe capital W, just like a character — because he’d been born there, a product of rape and captivity.
But for this interior-design reception, I suspected they wanted nitty-gritty of interiors, not just general architecture. Details about possessions and habits to show how well people are in sync with the way they’re living, or out of it. Houses are a goldmine of this, of course. The details we’re showcasing in our homes create the face we think we’re showing the world. But the cracks in the wall, the chinks in the armor, provide more telling glimpses of who we really are.
For example, what might each of these environments tell you about their owners?
* The meticulous professional who lives alone in a minimalistic condo, but the basement looks like an outtake of Hoarders.
* The woman who goes to great lengths to create a state-of-the-art kitchen, but six months later, has never used her red-enamel 9-burner designer stove.
* The librarian whose home has bookshelves are organized by color — not by content, or author — or whose shelves filled more with knickknacks than actual books.
* A Victorian antique home whose formal foyer is littered with shoes, boots, snowpants, hats, mittens — no proper mudroom or closet equipped to handle them.* Were the homeowners too lazy, the reader wonders, too busy, too cheap or too unimaginative to customize the house in a way that would work better for them? Or had they suddenly inherited a pack of children from a deceased relative?
In journalism these idiosyncrasies are called facts. In forensics and other sciences, they’re called data. In fiction, we call them telling details — visual or behavioral nuggets that speak volumes about a character.
For realtors or interior decorators trying to help homeowners, these clues are evidence of a problem begging for a solution. For authors it’s the same thing, but from the opposite side: Writers know the problem from the getgo, and eventually, the solution. But we have to cough up the telling details to back it up — the Hoarders basement, the unused gourmet stove — that make the characters and storyline feel authentic.
For a family in crisis, the home gives it away in a million small ways. In my novel there’s a scene where a woman visits a widower and his children — the family of her close friend who’d died a year ago. The kitchen shelves, which used to be perfectly lined with cookbooks and framed photographs, are now piles of junk-mail catalogs, kid art and mismatched Tupperware. In the family room, once a paean to Pottery Barn organization, nothing is collected in its wall unit of miniature bins any longer. The family-room detritus flows into what used to be a formal living room, like water finding its natural level. Because this is a man who no longer has use for such distinctions between rooms.
In the first draft I might well have added something like, “He was just trying to hold it together day by day and raise his family without his wife.“
But you don’t need that sentence if the details say it for you: puzzle pieces wedged under corners of the rug and falling into heating ducts, the wall-unit organizers with nothing left inside to organize. You don’t even want that sentence, “He was just trying to…”, now that you’ve built this room for readers to read like tea leaves.
Spoon-feeding the information that way, compared to the compliment of trusting them to intuit it, would be like an insult to their intelligence. And no fact-checking department can protect you from that.