To Know A Place – The History Beneath
by Erin Farwell
As writers we strive to create characters that resonate with our readers. Often we know more about our characters than we will use in our stories. This allows us to see them as fully formed people and our writing is inherently stronger. What some of us miss is value of having that same detailed knowledge of our setting.
Whether a story is set in a fictional or actual location, past, present or future, I believe it is worthwhile for writers to know their locations as intimately as they do their characters. Many of us know our place in terms of streets, shops, and parks. We also know of world events current to our story, but many writers stop there. If you go deeper you will find that your characters move more freely in this world you’ve created because you see it as fully formed. As with your understanding of your characters, you may not use most of what you know of your setting, but it will be more concrete in your mind and this will be reflected in your writing.
I consider my settings of time and place in terms of five types of knowledge or history:
Physical Location: For me this goes beyond streets and rivers, houses and schools to seasons and weather and crops, anything specific that those living in that place would know. Local and regional traditions, products, or events are also important. Maps help, as do layouts of houses or rooms when relevant. The more I know the physicality of my setting, the better I can imagine my characters inhabiting that place which brings both to life.
Current Events – Global: This level of knowledge is a given for most writers. We know what is happening in the world during the time in which the story is set, whether or not it impacts our plot. Unless a character suffers a blow to the head, they are unlikely to be quizzed regarding the current president, but it is important that you know. My novel Shadowlands is set in 1927 and so I know who the president was, (Coolidge), the cost of a new Model T (about $300) and significant events (first “talkie” movie, Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic). Most of this is irrelevant to my story, but when I write I see the world through my character’s eyes and my vision is clearer when I have the same information that they would know.
Current Events – Local: If your story is set in an actual place, learn what happened in the area during the time frame of your story. I found that some of the events I uncovered were helpful to my plot or character development. The events could also serve as red herrings or help you readers better connect with your world. If your setting is fictional, create a knowledge and understanding of it beyond the needs of your plot. Even if you don’t use it in your story, your writing will have greater depth and readers will experience your setting as genuine rather than a stage upon which your characters act. Also, you might be surprised at what you discover. My novel is set in a town called St. Joseph, Michigan. Before his historic flight, Charles Lindbergh practiced flying over water with a route that took him from Chicago, across Lake Michigan, to St. Joe, and back. He would tip his wings to the people on the beach before turning toward home. This small incident linked my tiny setting to the global events of the day.
History over Lifetime of Protagonist or Other Significant Character: Since you are seeing the world through the eyes of your character(s), you should know the significant events that occurred locally and globally over their lifetime up to the point the story begins. You should also understand how your setting changed during this timeframe. Some prior events may link the past to the present as part of the plot or subplot. However, something as small as: “Jim walked past Lovitt’s Department Store, smiling at the memory of he and Susan sharing a root beer float after school, back when the building housed a soda fountain.” This type of inclusion can help the reader experience both Jim and the town as three-dimensional entities rather than words on a page. You don’t want to take too many of these detours but a few, judiciously placed, can add authenticity to your story and solidity to your location.
Older Impactful History: Most often found in smaller communities such as towns or neighborhoods, this type of history can take many forms but usually centers around a shared community experience. Why or how a town was founded, a disaster, and a civil war battle are examples of critical events that can create a collective emotion or world view, such as shame, guilt, or entitlement, which comes to define that community. This emotional foundation is passed from generation to generation through established phrases, unrecognized rituals, or expectations. Characters may or may not be aware of the situation, yet they are still a part of it. Consciously or not, they might continue the world view or struggle against it. Regardless of whether this type of history is relevant to your plot or you directly discuss it in your work, by understanding this dynamic of setting your characters will have greater complexity.
As writers, we want to draw our readers into the world we’ve created. By knowing the history of our setting, we can assure that our readers will land on solid ground.