Where are we now?
Okay, so we’ve gone over turning an idea into a story. We have looked at how important words can be to describe a scene. Let’s hit on a point some writers don’t think about a lot: the setting. Where and when we are can color a story as much as the characters inside it. Capturing a moment in time is hard, but success in doing this can make an okay premise into something amazing.
So, when we are looking at the setting, the first and most important question we should ask is why? Why does this story need to be in Texas? Or in the 60’s? Or in late nineteenth century London? What exactly about that period and place is important to you or the story? Trust me when I tell you “just because I felt like writing a story in Pacific Northwest” is not a great answer.
Places have soul and meaning. And, and this isn’t immediately obvious but is very important, they have a preexisting backstory with some readers. If you are going to write about the gay scene in Seattle, then do yourself a favor and know something about both the gay scene and the city. If you start to make things up, people will notice. Little things can kill a story. Just one piece of erroneous information can send a reader into doubt so he or she will begin to disbelieve the rest of your story.
Don’t believe me?
What if we had a story set in New York in the seventies. We are talking about the summer of the Son of Sam, a record heat wave, and a massive blackout, along with life from day to day. All these things are imprinted in the collective conscious of the public and surge to the forefront when you start to mention that place and time. Some people might think of early Saturday Night Live, some might remember the looting and riots that took place. Some might remember disco and Studio 54. Whatever the detail may be, most people will have some kind of snapshot of this time.
Let’s say I am writing about a gay man (Jim) who has met another guy (Joe) he likes at a club. He wants to meet him again so he asks him for his number?
In the seventies, what was the proper response?
If Joe was being coy, didn’t want to just give his number out, or wanted to make Jim work for it, what would he have said to him to give him a hint about where his number was? The response no longer has any meaning in this day and age, but back then, Joe would have told Jim he was in The Book.
The Book here is the White Pages of the phone book. Phone book? People back then relied almost completely on The Book (or, in the case of New York City, The Books) when looking for a number. Then Joe could have also told Jim to call information for the number. However, back then using Information involved using switchboard operators who had, at least sometimes, the skill to pull a number out of the air. Information operated more as art than science and more times than not, you found yourself going back to the phone book as your primary source.
Today Joe would have said he was on Facebook or Instagram or might even have given Jim a Tumblr site to look at. Currently, we wouldn’t bother with something as random as an email. Emails were the norm during the late 90s and early 2000s, and most of them would have been an AOL address.
Things like knowing what The Book was may seem almost silly; but in reference to your story, if you are trying to sell a time period, you need to know the details. And the closer to the present you’re writing, the more you’ll have to know and use correctly.
I have friends who are from England, and they have more than once asked me to look over something they wrote to make sure there was no ‘Brit-speak’ in it. In other words, if the story is set on a ranch in Texas, when people are talking, do they sound like they are from Texas? Are they using the right words? Not everyone in Texas has an accent. In fact, most if not all the people I have met in the past decade I have lived here do not have one. They don’t wear cowboy hats, they don’t wear Wranglers and only some own guns. When you are describing the gay scene in Dallas and you have people talking like they are some ignorant hick, I assure you people will notice and they will tune out.
But more important than the little things is the why.
Why am I setting this story in the seventies? Do I want to examine the open era of sex and drugs and compare that time with today? Do I want to show the innocence of the time? Do I want to make a statement about AIDS? If none of those things is true and I just think it’s cool to have a story in the 70s, I might have to ask myself if I just want it there because I know the story by itself is not strong enough to stand without some window dressing.
It’s disheartening to read an entire novel and, at the end, wonder, “Why couldn’t this story have been set in the current day? Treat the era like a character itself, one that has a purpose, a story and its own motivation.
To go back to my imaginary 70s story, if I was to write a story in that time and place, it would be about longing, about a passion that is threatening to overwhelm the main character. Maybe he has been in the closet for his entire life and now in New York, with such a gay scene, he just lets it all out. The story, like the summer of 1977, would build with the heat and the killings and the anger until finally, when everything hit critical mass during the blackout, not only Jim and Joe but the city itself experiences a moment of complete and total disassociation.
Maybe Jim confronts people who used the night and the lack of power as a reason to bash him. Maybe the gay people at the bar he goes to had enough and went outside to fight back. Whatever the climax is, it happens when the power is out. In those hours, where the basic social rules have broken down, force is met with force. In that primal darkness, modern man lashes out exactly as his ancestors did thousands of years ago. The paper thin veneer of culture cracks and the old, hard wired responses emerge.
You see how the city and the events help the story along, not just frame it? The city is the main character: what Jim feels the city feels. His tension tightens and grows as the heat builds and the air becomes more stifling until everything explodes. And, in those hours of darkness, no one knows what happens. You have this whole waking up and realizing what has happened after, the regret, the shame, the sadness, the emotional arc of the character that makes him realize what he was missing or lacking in the whole story.
Why are your characters cowboys? Because they don’t accept conventional life? They don’t want to sit in a cubicle and work forty hours a week. Do they want to live under the sky and work hard and make something of the land? By saying they are a cowboy, are you saying what kind of man they are?
Or are you just saying cowboys are hot?
Trust me, go for both. It makes a better story all around.