Awhile ago, during a workshop discussion of a story set in 1950s rural England, the topic turned to detail. The story was a coming of age piece, with a hidden garden and a mysterious sweet shop. The group admired the story, and its portrayal of the child protagonist who, each time she returned from the shop, suffered the assaults of pinches (or “nips” in the local parlance) from a mysterious girl who leapt from the bushes then disappeared. The milieu was evocative and included wonderful detail of the time and place, but the author wasn’t as sure. Her concern was that the setting was too particular, and that using local terms for insects, music, clothing, etc., might cause confusion and possibly alienate the reader.
Setting is more than time and place.
In my view, the more specific the setting, the better. “Setting,” says Richard Ford, “is the context that makes what people do more plausible.” And when the setting in a story is really working, it becomes inseparable from the character and the action. To borrow the proverbial phrase, all narrative is local—and while the prospect of using local terminology felt risky for my workshop student, unfamiliar detail doesn’t have to be confusing. In my view, the more idiosyncratic the detail, the more likely it is to yield a memorable setting. And a memorable setting is bound to yield a great story.
Setting is more than time and place. Its portrayal exceeds the adage to think beyond tree to date palm, or car to Volkswagen. Of course, any setting requires we think about the physical place our characters inhabit and will naturally include relevant detail—from flora and fauna to the contours of a beach. Yet beyond the physical features of place, setting embodies a universe of detail that reveals how character and setting intersect. There is, for example, the influence of local history, geology, and lore, and the changes experienced by a protagonist over time. Setting will always have some influence on character, in patterns of speech and local parlance for instance; an affinity (or not) with local conditions like weather, customs; the influence of culture, dominant or marginalized. These might seem like aspects of characterization, but I’d assert they all contribute to setting by expressing the ways in which physical milieu is embodied in character. And placed together in the unit of time we call a story, this detail generates a language, a set of terms that makes a setting particular in its own way.
When thinking about a character’s relationship to setting, the fundamental question is: how long has she been there? This is relevant because a character who is a stranger to her surroundings has far different impressions than one who’s lived there all her life. In the context of setting there is always insiders and outsiders, those with intimate knowledge and newcomers for whom the world is basically unknown.
In defining the role of an insider, I think of the proverbial local, the person who, when you’re lost, you stop to ask for directions. While it’s possible that the details might be offered in a completely clear and objective way, the chances are greater that the insider’s directions will describe that turn you missed in a shorthand way, using local terms to describe landmarks, routes and place names. Then, once he’s given you directions, he may keep you another ten minutes with details of local history (“That road wasn’t so bad awhile back, but once they built the interstate…”). An insider knows the local slang, the area’s geology, its flora and fauna, and as importantly, may or may not speak to the outsider’s lack of familiarity with the locale.
If an insider has an intimate knowledge of setting, the outsider is seeing things for the first time. Whether it’s an estranged son who goes home to his parents, or a girl who leaves college to look for her father in an unfamiliar Manhattan, the outsider often confronts the challenges of the an unknown place. The outsider is likely to view her surroundings with a heightened sense of awareness, and this level of observation, or watchfulness, in real life produces a kind of hyper-awareness, and in fiction translates to heightened detail. The novelist Paula Fox has attributed a lifelong state of watchfulness to a childhood in which she lived only occasionally with her mother, and largely with a series of foster parents. Watchfulness is a natural condition of the outsider, where adaptation and unpredictability are constants. Confronted by an unfamiliar place, even the most assured of characters will face a degree of alienation or detachment.
That workshop story, about the sweet shop, was told from the point of view of an insider. The author based the story on a familiar childhood setting, and this provided her with a wealth of detail from which to portray her story’s milieu. Nevertheless, she feared having to qualify the terms of this world, and that the local parlance for flora and fauna, for example, would slow the story down. It’s this burden of explanation that often prevents my students from using detail that is so fundamental to setting. It’s not enough to know whether a protagonist is an insider or an outsider, though knowing is crucial to your story. My students often want to know where to begin and how to portray, without overt explanation, the terms of a specific milieu, known or unknown.
As it happens, advice comes from V.S. Naipaul, and can be found in his 2001 Nobel speech “Two Worlds.” Naipaul, whose career began in the late 1950s as a Oxford graduate who edited “Caribbean Voices” for BBC radio, has published shelves of novels and non-fiction, and was most recently in the news last June following his testy comments on women and writing. As offensive as his comments were, it’s best to ignore Naipaul’s personal rants and read his brilliant writing. Which brings us back to setting, and the author’s early struggles to portray his native Port of Spain, Trinidad, a place largely unknown to the European audience he sought:
At last one day there came to me the idea of starting with the Port of Spain street to which we had moved from Chaguanas . . . This street life was what I began to write about. I wished to write fast, to avoid too much self-questioning, and so I simplified. I suppressed the child-narrator’s background. I ignored the racial and social complexities of the street. I explained nothing. I stayed at ground level, so to speak.
As Naipaul describes, he didn’t concern himself with explanations of context or scene setting. On the contrary, the ground level approach presents detail in an immediate way, as if from one insider to another. The term “ground level” here is defined as one that is intentionally intimate, local and specific, and as Naipaul says, it ignores the complexities and explains nothing.
An excerpt that illustrates the ground level approach can be found in Naipaul’s 1961 novel, “A House for Mr Biswas.” The story follows Mohun Biswas from childhood through his difficult marriage and premature death amid mortgage debt. From his birth Biswas is branded as unlucky, and his every move seems ill-chosen. As a young man, having failed in his training as a pundit, he leaves the village of Pagotes for the city of Arwacas, and falls haphazardly into marriage with a girl from a prominent merchant family, the Tulsis. In this passage, the young Biswas waits in the sitting room of his future in-laws, summoned after a note he impulsively wrote to one of the daughters was intercepted. The matriarch, Mrs. Tulsi, is intent on marrying off the daughter in question, Shama, and as Biswas waits, he observes the unfamiliar room:
The most important piece of furniture in the hall was a long unvarnished pitchpine table, hard grained and chipped. A hammock made from sugar sacks hung across one corner of the room. An old sewingmachine, a baby-chair and a black-biscuit drum occupied another corner. Scattered about were a number of unrelated chairs, stools and benches, one of which, low and carved with rough ornamentation from a solid block of cyp wood, still had the saffron colour which told that it had been used at a wedding ceremony. More elegant pieces— a dresser, a desk, a piano so buried among papers and baskets and other things that it was unlikely it was ever used—choked the staircase landing. On the other side of the hall there was a loft of curious construction. It was as if an enormous drawer had been pulled out of the top of the wall; the vacated space, dark and dusty, was crammed with all sort of articles Mr Biswas couldn’t distinguish.
In this scene, as with so many in the novel, Biswas is an outsider. As he waits for Mrs. Tulsi, he searches his surroundings for the recognizable, while never grasping the room is a sitting room (he refers to it as a “hall”). Meanwhile, his observation arises in the most natural way, based on what is familiar and what isn’t. Ground level detail emerges in the wonderful term “pitchpine,” in the “hammock made from sugar sacks,” the “black-biscuit drum,” and the carved wedding bench. The bench, made “from a solid block of cyp wood,” takes even us closer to ground level, in its color that reveals “it had been used at a wedding ceremony,” and Biswas’ reference to the wood as “cyp,” likely local slang for cypress, a tree common to Trinidad. This mix of local and idiosyncratic terms creates a kind of lexicon, a unique way of describing this world, and Biswas’ view of it—which of course are one and the same.
The immediacy of the ground level approach has another effect. The outsider’s close observation has an instructional effect, teaching the reader about this new place. We learn not only about the relative wealth and prominence of the Tulsis, but see evidence of their chaotic household in that bizarre storage loft, and glimpse local wedding customs in the cypress wood bench. When the outsider carefully observes the details of an unfamiliar milieu, in the process, these details teach the reader about a world she is unfamiliar too.
It’s important to note that Naipaul effectively uses Biswas as narrator to provide what context is needed. To return once more to that cypress wood bench, we see it is “ low and carved with rough ornamentation from a solid block of cyp wood, [and] still had the saffron colour which told that it had been used at a wedding ceremony.” It’s a deft sketch, relevant given the context of Mrs. Tulsi’s invitation, but the key here is Naipaul’s concision that does not overstep context. Too much explaining would break the voice, which straddles an insider’s view of local custom with an outsider’s discomfort of the unfamiliar. To portray a setting at ground level is to see the physical surroundings as the character does, to digest the known and the unknown, to reveal impressions both of the moment and the past. As Biswas observes the room, a complete grasp of the surroundings is not only implausible, but irrelevant. Naipaul demonstrates his understanding of his character’s relationship to the milieu, and frames it within appropriate boundaries.
The ground level approach is not just about detail, but creating a lexicon for a story. The various terms of the physical world, the social realm, and spoken language render character inseparable from setting. It’s worth noting too, given the richness of Naipaul’s example, and that of the English sweet shop, might suggest that a more “familiar” setting by contrast would classify as too “ordinary” and unremarkable to yield the kind of detail described here. But I’d hazard that every setting has a unique strain, some register that sets it apart, a direct result of the unique character who inhabits it.
Think again of that local giving you directions. He would likely use terms for the landscape that only one familiar with it would know: arroyo, fishkill, ganderbrush, blind creek, fire road. He might also use the local parlance, references that reach beyond landscape to the public sphere: Soxtober (Chicago), Iron Dog (Alaskan for snowmobile), The T (Boston subway), The El (Chicago elevated train). He might also use the technical terms of his livelihood: skip, troll, spec house, leisure farm, rent-a-cow. And when this happens, are you still lost? Not at all. Once you’re back in the car, you’ve got your directions, and more—a few new terms that help you better know a place you didn’t know before.