Take Me There

One of the perks of having a Kindle is that nifty “try a free sample” option offered by Amazon. They give you a sneak peek at an entire chapter and I usually know if I’m in or not by the end of it. As a writer, that’s telling, because I’m not alone. Agents, editors, readers, they all have a vast ocean of other available choices. If you don’t grab them in that first chapter, you’re likely to lose them.

The last two books I sampled and immediately bought were novels I’d stumbled across on blogs, one in an author interview, and the other in a list of small press novels not to be missed. Lauren Groff’s Arcadia and Kei Miller’s The Last Warner Woman are very different books in tone, style, and subject matter. They’re written in different tenses, one with a singular third person POV, the other vacillating between third (with frequent forays into 2nd) and first. But what they have in common is a certain magical elixir that always gets me – and my wallet.

It begins with voice. I like it strong, distinct, making its presence known on the first page. Then comes character. Give me someone fascinating, somebody I want to know better, and for god’s sake, let them be real. I want in their head, want to feel like they’re stepping off the page and into my imagination. I’m not asking you for sunshine and lollipops, or Superman, noble and pure. Prickly and imperfect, a bit lost, maybe even deeply scarred; these are all viable options. I don’t have to love them right away, but I absolutely must want to spend the next several days hanging out with them. Otherwise, I’m gone.

Speaking of gone…

Take me there.

Wherever there is, wherever you’ve set the story? Dip me in head first. Give me an immediate, rich sense of place. Don’t go Faulkner on me – I’m not asking for three pages of exposition filled with minute details – but please, let me see/feel/smell/hear the character’s world the same way I should be seeing/feeling/hearing them. (I probably don’t want to smell them, unless they’re wearing some particularly delicious cologne.)

I once worked for a man who claimed that the success of a business was dependant upon three things: location, location, location.

For this reader, that translates to books, too. I want to feel the space your characters inhabit, want to have a sense that this story couldn’t possibly happen anywhere other than in this city, this barren stretch of outer suburbia, or this rickety space ship bumbling through space. (Because if it could, why isn’t it?)

That’s something Millar and Groff both do brilliantly. A few deft strokes and we’re smack in the middle of a 1970’s back-to-the land commune or deep in the heart of Jamaica. You feel the roots of the story sunk into the setting, feel the world rising up to surround you, and it’s gorgeous. You want more. So you push that buy button, and off you go, into another world.

Last Friday, I saw my son’s third grade musical Biome, the tale of some escaped zoo animals looking for their natural habitats. It made me think about characters, and their natural habitats, i.e., the settings we writers drop them into. Even if they don’t fit where they’ve landed and the story is about their quest to adapt or finding a better, truer place to be, location is still imperative to the story and it should feel every bit as real as the characters themselves.

It needs to, for me. Otherwise, I’ll probably set the book down and walk away.

How about you? Is setting important to you? Do you need to feel a sense of place, or is that just icing on the cake if you get it?


13 responses to “Take Me There

  1. I just finished The Lion’s Game by Nelson Demille, a remarkable, well-paced thriller. Not only did the characters feel like flesh and blood, but Demille set it in sufficiently detailed environments that I felt I had visited Federal Plaza in Manhattan, ridden in the cockpit of a twin engine Cessna and visited President Reagan’s Rancho del Cielo. It was a rich tapestry of people, places and emotions I am still revisiting a week later.

    On the other hand, I am currently reading a police thriller by a noted New Mexican author. While the story is clearly well-researched and fast paced, the absence of detail gives the characters and setting a two-dimensional, cardboard-like feeling so I only connect at best on an intellectual level.

  2. Setting for me is often an imagined place – but I do like details. So I often make them up. Unlike Raymond, I don’t care if it’s real or accurate, as long as it feels so. I like it when writers take a place – say New York – and twist it just enough to be both New York and not New York. But yep, I’m with you on setting, gotta work, whether the details or true or real or not, they have to FEEL that way.


  3. When I start to develop a story line, I have to know all I can about the Characters, especially the Protagonist and Antagonist, and their surroundings. I have to immerse my self in the characters and the locations the story takes place in. I want to know their past history, their background what went on before my story began. And I want to know all I can about the location, which includes smells, sights and sounds. After all , no matter if the story is true or made up, no matter if the characters are based on real people or made up entities, all of this is important in delivering a believable story to the reader, one they can get into, experience, live the moment.


  4. *grins* Settting (as Lisa could tell you) is often an afterthought for me. I care more about the characters and how they’re interacting than I do the room they’re in. Though that has made it a struggle in my own writing to make it seem more than (as my other CP put it once) “the characters could be on the moon for all I know!” 😛

    But seriously, in a book I rarely care that someone sat on a green couch or walked into a dingy bar. I’ll notice it only halfway because I’m so focused on the characters.

  5. What Kate said, because she said it so well 😉

    • Although Kate and I differ on a number of issues, I never slight her opinion. She has been at this far longer than I with far greater success. I recently had the pleasure of reading one of her manuscripts. While it was set in a time before any of us were born and, as she suggests, was in a manufactured—in part—location, it had the feel of reality.

      BTW, when are we going to start sharing our work with each other????

  6. This is a challenging topic. As a photographer I tend to prefer up close and detailed images, which means the viewer doesn’t always get the full context; it’s not my style to do “estabishing shots”. If I extrapolate my shooting style to a literary context, I’d probably enjoy the texture of “place” as well as that “aerial shot” before the zooming in. In other words, it’s fine if you want to “go all Faulkner” on me. So often place is an internal landscape as much, or more than a topographical one.

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