The Importance of Setting

By Brian Francis

On November 1, as part of the IFOA Delegate programme, I attended a roundtable discussion about the importance of book setting. The panel featured writer David Bergen (Leaving Tomorrow), Richard Wagamese (Medicine Walk), Christos Tsiolkas (Barracuda) and was moderated by Lewis DeSoto (The Restoration Artist).

Richard Wagamese, David Bergen, Christos Tsiolkas and Louis DeSoto

Richard Wagamese, David Bergen, Christos Tsiolkas and Louis DeSoto ©ifoa.org/Ricky Yu

One mistake that aspiring authors sometimes make is not paying close enough attention to the setting of their stories. But an evocative setting is crucial to a story’s success. After all, if you can’t create a believable world that your characters inhabit, how will readers believe in those characters?

Setting can play such an important role in your story that it can even become, as Lewis DeSoto pointed out, an extension of a character. Setting can even be a character, providing the obstacle your characters need to overcome. Think blizzards, jungles and shopping malls during holiday season.

But setting is more than the physical location. As David Bergen pointed out, setting is also how people speak, how they talk, the cars they drive. Often, it’s not about the physical setting but its nuances that contribute to creating a believable backdrop for your readers.

When it comes to researching your setting, the panel agreed that while Google comes it handy, it doesn’t provide the sensory details you need in order to truly capture your setting. You, as the writer, need to experience your settingthe smells, the landscape, its inhabitantsif you want to create a believable place that will captivate the imaginations of your readers.

Brian Francis’ most recent novel, Natural Order, was selected by the Toronto Star, Kobo and Georgia Straight as a Best Book of 2011. His first novel, Fruit, was a 2009 Canada Reads finalist. Francis is also an IFOA Delegate.

Humber School for Writers presents: How We Write

By Janet Somerville

Workshop leaders Kevin Barry, Wayson Choy, Karen Connelly, Valerie Martin and Nino Ricci appeared in conversation on Wednesday with Antanas Sileika, novelist and Director of the Humber School for Writers, and their discussion opened with their responses to this question: What should a beginning writer know?

Kevin Barry

Kevin Barry and Karen Connelly

Dublin IMPAC-winning novelist Kevin Barry began by suggesting that “books and stories come out of our fear and anxiety, out of our dark places” and that it was essential to “finish everything. You must finish the bad stories so you know what the good ones are when they come.” His other advice: “Develop in yourself a sense of patience. There’s always a glow when something is finished, and that’s when you should put it in a drawer.” Finally, he referenced Annie Dillard’s wisdom to “keep your overhead low.”

Contrarian Karen Connelly, author of The Lizard Cage, claimed, “I encourage you all to be atypical. Penelope Fitzgerald didn’t start publishing until she was 62. You have to have the courage to take your life and return it to the world. Be daring.” Veteran American novelist and Orange Prize winner Valerie Martin, whose most recent book is The Ghost of Mary Celeste, insisted she has lived and written by the motto that “art saves your life and art ruins your life.” Her sensible advice: “Be patient. Be dogged. Don’t be afraid.”

Karen Connelly

Karen Connelly

Trillium Book Award winner Wayson Choy, whose The Jade Peony is now in its 30th printing, said, “Learn about craft. Figure out, for example, how James Joyce wrote such a memorable ending to ‘The Dead.’” Nino Ricci, whose first novel, Lives of the Saints, won the Governor General’s Literary Award, claimed his delusion he had as a young writer kept him going: “You want to keep a writer writing, by not telling them the truth.” Ricci suggested also to ignore the tolling laments of “Nobody’s reading anymore” and “The novel is dead,” because “the joy of the first book that you write is a gift you will never have again. Just write. Do as much as possible. Every day.”

Responding to Sileika’s prompt, “What do you mean about writing about life in the world,” Connelly said, “I lived in Thailand and I wanted to keep moving. I wanted to live in other cultures and discover what it meant to be human in different places. It’s such a powerful and transformative experience. Where your body is is what you’re going to write about. It’s good to feel born in the wrong place, because it makes you curious and seeking.”

For Choy, “Chinatown was a place I wanted to forget about. It was a ghetto. People only spoke with each other. But, Chinatown travelled with me. Carol Shields suggested in a creative writing class that I write about it. It turns out that who you are and where you come from may be the source of your greatest material.”

About his bold use of language in City of Bohane, Sileika asked Barry, “How do you make language fresh?” His answer: “I grew up in Limerick and Cork in working class communities. Language is used and abused there. I wanted to free myself from having to hove to the actual. It’s kind of a retro future in 2053, but I wanted to give the sense that it could be 1853 or 1953, that is, another world.”

Wondering how Nino Ricci dared to go into the territory he did in Testament, Ricci said, “People don’t really care that much about Christianity anymore. As a child, I always believed that Jesus was Italian. In my novel he’s the son of a Roman soldier. And, it seemed to me that we were living such unexamined lives about religion.”

Wayson Choy

Wayson Choy

Each writer described their process. Barry said he tries “to be still half asleep when I write. You’re closest to the murky place then. DeLillo says, ‘write when you are puddled in dream melt.’ And, places where you embarrass yourself and recoil in horror, those are the good bits.” Connelly insisted that for her, “procrastination is an important part of the process. I read. I do administrative work, and then I write in the afternoon, often standing up, for two to three hours each day.” Like Kevin Barry, Valerie Martin admitted to writing best “when I’m fresh from the dream. Often I’ll start about the dream. I write longhand on loose leaf paper.” Choy claimed he begins with a ritual: “I take out all of my fountain pens and arrange them. It’s sort of zen. Now I write in transit. When I can. When I will.” Ricci lamented making the mistake “of switching from handwriting to computer” and pledged that he’d change his ways.

Develop patience. Learn craft. Don’t be afraid. Have the courage to take your life and return it to the world.

Follow Janet Somerville on Twitter @janetsomerville.

Lewis DeSoto on Emily Carr

Lewis DeSoto is both a writer and artist whose paintings have been exhibited across Canada. A former editor of the Literary Review of Canada, DeSoto has published essays and short stories in numerous journals, and his novel A Blade of Grass was nominated for the Man Booker Prize. In this clip, DeSoto talks about his […]