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?