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.

David Nicholls at IFOA 35

David Nicholls is the author of the bestselling One Day, adapted into a film staring Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess. Nicholls presented his latest novel, Us, at IFOA 35. In case you missed it, the discussion with Bert Archer is below.

Five Questions with… David Bergen

David Bergen, author of Leaving Tomorrow and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets to see David on November 2, as well as a copy of Leaving Tomorrow! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: In an interview with Mark Medley of the National Post, you said, “I always have a book that I use that somehow inspires my novels.” What book inspired Leaving Tomorrow?
Bergen, David

David Bergen: For this novel, there was no one specific book, though The Red and the Black and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man were humming in the background. And Ecclesiastes. And Flaubert.

IFOA: Leaving Tomorrow focuses on young Arthur finding his place in his family and the world. How did you go about creating such a psychologically compelling character?

Bergen: I try to figure out what the character is pushing against. That is my starting point, and usually that leads to other discoveries. Nothing is obvious, and usually the little moments are the ones in which the character reveals himself.

IFOA: What was it like having one of your novels (The Age of Hope) selected to be part of CBC’s Canada Reads in 2013?

Bergen: Strange. Canada Reads is geared towards discussions of “issues” or “relevance,” and certain novels are not inclined that way. That said, I was pleased to have attention paid to The Age of Hope. Good people at Canada Reads, and I got to meet Ron MacLean.Bergen, Leaving Tomorrow

IFOA: Do you have a writing regiment?

Bergen: When I am writing and lucky enough to be in the midst of a novel, I write five days a week, six hours a day, at my office in the Exchange in Winnipeg. I aim for five hundred words a day.

IFOA: What was the best piece of writing you read in the past year?

Bergen: Traveler of the Century by Andrés Neuman.

David Bergen is the award-winning author of eight novels, including The Time in Between, winner of the 2005 Scotiabank Giller Prize. See David on November 2 as he reads from his latest, Leaving Tomorrow, an emotionally powerful story about a hopeful young man who yearns for a larger life outside of his small town in Alberta.

Five Questions with… George Fetherling

George Fetherling, author of Travels by Night and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets to see George on November 2! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: You’re presenting the 20th anniversary edition of your memoir Travels by Night at IFOA. How does it feel to revisit a memoir 20 years later?Fetherling, George

George Fetherling: Re-reading (and expanding and revising) the text was an odd experience for someone in his mid-60s looking back at what he wrote in his mid-40s about his first 21 years. I’m glad I wrote it when I did, because I scarcely recognize the narrator today except in some matters of diction. So the effect is a little like shaking hands with one’s ghost.

IFOA: How has the Canadian publishing industry changed since your early involvement in it?

Fetherling: Pretty well everything about Canadian publishing has changed in my time, sometimes for the better, but mostly not. On the plus side, the industry is certainly much more cosmopolitan and diverse than it used to be. But is it any more stable? Old publishers are always folding up, shutting down or being sold off as new and unexpected ones spring up and graduate from small- to middle-sized.

IFOA: Your literary output is extraordinary. Which of your own projects are you most fond of?

Fetherling: Travels by Night is my best-known book, I guess, but two others that people seem to like are the novel Walt Whitman’s Secret (already made into a play in the US, with a Canadian production now in the works) and The Sylvia Hotel Poems. My own favourite of my books—but no one else’s evidently—is my biography of the late George Woodcock.

Fetherling, Travels by NightIFOA: What project is next for you?

Fetherling: I’ve been working on a novel, a kind of noir, because after all I was raised noir. It will probably be called The Carpenter from Montreal.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: I often wonder…

Fetherling: I often wonder how I have survived against the odds—and how long I might continue to do so.

George Fetherling is a prolific poet, novelist, cultural commentator and memoirist. He presents the expanded 20th anniversary edition of his memoir Travels by Night, which discusses literary life in the 1960s. On November 2, he discusses writing and real-life inspiration alongside four other authors.

Five Questions with… Rudy Wiebe

Rudy Wiebe, author of Come Back and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets to see Rudy on November 2, as well as a copy of Come Back! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: Your website says that you have “always held to the fundamentals of plot, character and, above all, story.” Can you elaborate?

Rudy Wiebe: To be utterly simplistic, all human stories involve some achieving, some overcoming of something: that is, some conflict. Plot, the action sequence of that conflict, and character, the determiner and performer of that action, make up (!) the story. Obviously, a book could be written on this matter—and many have been.

© J.D. Sloan

© J.D. Sloan

IFOA: What role does spirituality play in Come Back, a novel concerned with loss and death?

Wiebe: Come Back is a story of death and memory and family. As such, matters of the human spirit play a more significant role than physical or material facts, important as the latter always are in life. The hope, the faith, the love within human spirituality are the realities that become most powerful in the lives of the novel’s characters, though they cannot, of course, experience these realities fully. At least not yet.

IFOA: Name one book that has made a lasting impression on you.

Wiebe: One (of many) would be The Fairytales of the Brothers Grimm. In my earliest grades in school, I read so many simple versions of these stories (“The Wolf and the Seven Kids,” “The Fisherman and his Wife,” “Snow White,” etc.) that when I was studying in Germany I bought the complete 1819 collection, and discovered more marvellous tales like  “The Singing Bone,” “The Messengers of Death” and many others (there are over 200). From their ultra realism to their musical magic, reading them in their original German helped me understand better that, somehow—who knows how—song and story are the foundations of human life.

Wiebe, Come BackIFOA: Finish this sentence: I write best when I…

Wiebe: …Face a specific writing problem, have considered it and gone on to do other things and return to it again, as for the first time; and then, words will find an order in my head and/or on paper that evokes a clear image of what created the problem in the first place.

IFOA: How has your writing changed over time?

Wiebe: This question is undoubtedlyly better answered by perceptive readers. As for me, I would hope my stories have grown more gently insightful, more wide-ranging in their subject matter, and, above all, more entertaining and convincing—better yet, intriguing—in their believability.

Rudy Wiebe is a novelist, short story writer and essayist. He has been the recipient of many awards, including the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction and the RBC Taylor Prize. Wiebe is also an Officer of the Order of Canada. See him in a round table discussion on November 2 as writers discuss real-life inspirations and the directions these inspirations have led them in.

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