ABCs of Creative Nonfiction: S is for Setting

Posted by on Jul 24, 2016 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

Iris July 2014The Summer 2015 issue of Soundings Review, the literary journal of the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts (NILA), includes this introduction from editor Jim Gearhart:

In this issue we will visit a wide range of settings. We have beaches, deserts, volcanoes, and prehistoric seas. We have hair salons, taxis, barns, and condos.

Some of those settings—beaches, deserts, hair salons—were in nonfiction pieces, and as the nonfiction editor, I believe that the following part of Jim’s introduction applies as fully to that genre as to fiction:

These settings all help reflect something of the writer. Each of the contributions must take place in that very place, at that moment; the plot or the character or the image would not be the same anywhere else. Through the choice of settings, our contributors share their perspective with us, and of something new and different.

Whether you’re writing memoir, a personal essay, profiles, or some other type of narrative nonfiction, setting (or place) often is as important as a character. And because objects occur in settings, they’re interrelated; the setting provides a stage where the story unfolds, with the objects much like props.

In The Writer’s Portable Mentor, Priscilla Long explains the importance of setting (as well as objects):

In real life, objects and settings carry strong meanings. No knickknack, no set of car keys, no room is neutral or random.  Compare your own living room with that of your great aunt or your best friend. The chair, the rug, the photos speak —even if obliquely—about who that person is…Rooms stand for lives; objects hold history.

Settings—a room, a café, a mountaintop, an elevator—can do double duty to deepen a nonfiction narrative emotionally.  In nonfiction, the settings have to be actual places, but you can use them to heighten awareness of a character’s mood or to create an image for the reader of a specific time, as Joan Didion did about 1960s Haight Ashbury in her essay, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.”

Settings are especially pertinent in regional narratives, where place is a constant presence that almost becomes a character in its own right.  One example of this is Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams. The book’s subtitle —An Unnatural History of Family and Place— demonstrates this well as Williams tells parallel stories of her mother’s dying from cancer along side the unprecedented rising of Great Salt Lake and the damage that did to a migratory bird refuge. 

There are at least two approaches to writing the setting: literal description (factual—how it looks, smells, sounds) and experiential (how it feels). Literal description is the foundation, and it depends on intently observing details, especially those the casual observer would miss. While you might draw on your own experiences of a place (perhaps from journal entries or photographs), you may need to research specifics such as names of trees and flowers, types of wildlife, street names, and landmarks. Author and activist Rick Bass describes proper nouns in prose as like rocks in a stream; they break up the monotony of the flow, making it lively and interesting.  When the reader’s eyes moving across the page hit the proper nouns’ capital letters, they get the simple benefit of a bit of variety. 

Of course, all of those specific details might not end up in your narrative; it’s up to you to sift through them and use only those that are meaningful.  Didion did just that in her essay, “Madame President,” to describe a setting central to the story:

…Martin Luther King Jr. High School …is one of the biggest high schools in New York City. It is in a gloomy rectangular brown brick building resting on an elevated concrete deck at Amsterdam Avenue and Sixty-sixth Street—a structure that in an architectural drawing might have looked monumental but in real life looks like a giant rusting lunchbox teetering on a rock.

Or how about this excerpt from Hunting for Hope, a collection of essays by Scott Russell Sanders.  Here he describes the setting of a campsite in the Rockies that he shared with his son:

I wrapped my hands around the steaming mug and gazed at the radiant land. Grasses and pines, ground squirrels and hawks, the very rocks seemed to be bursting with energy.

Notice, too, how Didion and Sanders use simile and metaphor to decrease the risk of relying too heavily on the adjectives—gloomy, radiant.  Other tools they use to describe setting include smart nouns, strong verbs, and vivid imagery.

Experiential description moves beyond the literal and helps the reader know what a place feels like. Williams does this in Refuge when she describes going to the lake as an eight-year-old:

The ritual was always the same. Run into the lake, scream, and run back out. The salt seeped into the sores of our scraped knees and lingered. And if the stinging sensation didn’t bring you to tears, the brine flies did. 

There’s no physical description of the place at all, just the experience of being there by focusing on that one detail of how the saltwater felt.

Sanders writes about connection to place, too, in his essay, “Local Matters.” He combines the literal and experiential with specific details about his “dumpy old house…within a five-minute walk of our jobs…close to parents and forests and theaters and a library holding millions of books…kids lobbing tennis balls against limestone walls. Swifts dart in and out of chimneys…elderly maples and elms and oaks.”  And he ends that paragraph with three images of his community that help us know how it feels to be part of it:

We eat in one another’s kitchens. On many an evening, you can see us carrying salads and casseroles and hot loaves of bread up and down the street. We do not often think to lock our doors.

Just as with characters, dialogue and scenes, you can use settings to enrich every page. Here are a couple of exercises to help you do that.

  • Describe a room of your house, or the workplace of someone who is central to your nonfiction piece.  Describe this setting from the point of view of someone who is grieving, or someone who has just lost a job.  Don’t mention any of these circumstances, just describe the room.  Now describe the exact same setting from the point of view of someone who is happy.
  • Describe your kitchen or your garage, making that setting say something about your life.  Open your refrigerator, or a cabinet, or that kitchen drawer where things get tossed.

Iris Graville writes personal essays, memoir, and profiles from her home on Lopez Island, WA. Her work has been published in literary magazines including Spry Literary Journal and Alimentum Journal, and she is a past winner of the Oregon Quarterly Northwest Perspectives Essay Contest. Her first book, Hands at Work, received numerous accolades including a Nautilus Book Award. She has a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts, and she is the publisher of SHARK REEF Literary Magazine. Iris’s memoir, Hiking Naked—A Quaker Woman’s Search for Balance, was a finalist in the 2015 Pacific Northwest Writers Association Literary Contest; it’s scheduled to be published by Homebound Publications in 2017.

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