love medicine

I am lurgified. My head feels like it has been stuffed with bees. In case you are not sure, this is a bad thing. Please feel sorry for me.

Anyway. On with the blogathon.

Recently I read Love Medicine, by Louise Erdrich. It is beautifully written. Her characters are so vividly realised that you can see them, hear them speak. They walk off the page and sit down next to you, telling their stories.  Not only that, but their homes, the towns in which they live, the shape of the reservations, are made utterly concrete and real through Erdrich’s prose.

It made me think about how good writers are detailed and authentic in their settings. I think setting is the most difficult thing for many writers to master. If you do not come from an interesting place, a strong culture, a turbulent history, how do you create deep, realistic settings in your stories?

I am pretty sure that this is one problem that drives many writers to fantasy and science fiction. Writing fantastical worlds is easier than making the truth of how we live now come to life on the page. Not that there is anything wrong with fantastic or futuristic settings – as long as they are well rendered (honest, plausible, detailed), they are a vital element of good storytelling. But isn’t it a little bit easier, when you can draw your own map of your own world?

I’ve travelled a little bit and lived in a few different places, and whilst that definitely feeds the imagination, there is also a lack of depth in my knowledge of places. I currently live in a city that is rather uninspiring to me, although I happen to know it extremely well. The ideal is probably to live in a place that you know deeply and which you also find inspiring. I think writers in such circumstances are lucky indeed!

The issue of setting comes up in my writing all the time, and it is what I struggle with probably more than any other aspect of my writing at present. Do you struggle with setting, or does it come easily to you? Which writers do you think handle setting well? And do you think I should move to another city in order to improve my writing?

4 Replies to “love medicine”

  1. When I write, setting is the aspect I enjoy most. Possibly because I do find my city inspiring. Birmingham isn’t pretty, but there’s pathos in the way that its landscape never settles – bits are always being knocked down, neglected, repurposed. I love the canals and the parks and I’m moved by the derelict spaces. There’s lots to be angered and excited by.

    I can’t remember the last literary novel I read where the setting was memorably realised. It strikes me there are genre conventions at play beyond a realist/fantasy divide. Crime fiction typically pays a lot of attention to setting, either in the form of rural idylls or named, contemporary cities. The same is true of anglophone children’s fiction (maybe for similar ideological reasons).

    I’m not sure I agree that speculative world building is easier than reproducing the here and now. At any rate, I find the former more daunting.

  2. Hi Kate. Good comment!

    I enjoy setting as well, but I find it very challenging. At the moment, something I’m writing is set in a very specific place and time, and I am finding it difficult to work with, even though the story could only happen in that particular setting. I find it hard to write about where I am living – usually if I go away, it’s easier to find inspiration in where I’ve been!

    I recommend ‘Love Medicine’. I thought it was excellent. I don’t know if I agree that literary novels don’t do setting well. The best novels (of any genre) are hot on setting. I’m thinking about Wise Children, by Angela Carter (a novel that depends entirely on its setting), or Anne Tyler’s novels (all set in Baltimore), or Murakami’s Japan. Actually, do they count as literary novels? Perhaps we are thinking of different kinds of books.

    For me, setting has to be integral to the story – it’s not just the place something happens, but the time, the politics, the zeitgeist, the culture. Maybe I think fantasy worldbuilding is easier because there are conventions and logical guidelines in creating something which don’t apply in the messy, chaotic, haphazard real world. Also, there are existing settings, like mediaeval, fairytale, Tolkien-world etc, which people can use. Then again, I am not saying its *easy*. Definitely not! It is interesting to think about though!

  3. Oops – I didn’t mean to suggest literary novels don’t do setting well in general. Rather I’ve not read any in ages that I could give as good examples. I agree that setting is integral to well-written books of any genre. It might have been more accurate for me to say that setting is often implicated in distinctions between genres, and certain locales are suggestive of certain types of story. For instace, rural dystopias seem quite rare in SF, but the village as an anti-idyll is common in horror.

    Good fantasy worlds should also have a distinctive politics and culture, no? I think the idea of devising that from scratch, rather than drawing on my knowledge of a real place accumulated and consolidated over years, is what I find daunting.

  4. Completely agree. I think the problem for me is that I am neither creating my own world from scratch (tho’ I would argue that no one does this completely), nor am I drawing on knowledge I’ve accumulated over years. I’m somewhere in between and that can be creatively brilliant… or a real pain in the bum!

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