In her novel, A Map of the World, Jane Hamilton offers up many great examples of how to bring a setting to life. It is the story of Alice, a Kansas farm wife overwhelmed by the demands of parenting—yet while charged with the additional task of watching her friend’s children, the youngest toddles off and drowns in their pond.
Let’s look at several passages to see how Hamilton does it.
In the opening, she ties the description of Alice's farmer-husband to his work setting:
I had never said out loud a little joke I used to say to myself now and again: Everywhere that barn goes, Howard, you are sure to be close behind.~and~
His was a musky smell, as if the source of a muddy river, the Nile or the Mississippi, began right in his armpits…. That morning there was alfalfa on his pillow and cow manure embedded in his tennis shoes and the cuffs of his coveralls that lay by the bed.She evokes an unforgiving atmosphere:
The last rain had come at the beginning of April and now, at the first of June, all but the hardiest mosquitos had left their papery skins on the grass. It was already seven o’clock in the morning, long past time to close the windows and doors, trap what was left of the night air, slightly cooler only by virtue of the dark. The dust on the gravel had just enough energy to drift a short distance and then collapse on the flower beds. The sun had a white cast, as if shade and shadow, any flicker of nuance, had been burned out by its own fierce center. There would be no late afternoon gold, no pale early morning yellow, no flaming orange at sunset. If the plants had vocal cords they would sing their holy dirges like slaves.(Did you see how she orients us by slipping in the season and time of day in that last passage? A technique to emulate!)
She introduces the all-important pond in a meaningful way:
I often had the fanciful thought that the pond would save us; it would be the one thing that would postpone our deaths by scorching as the climate of our part of the world changed.Later, as Alice runs toward the pond looking for Lizzy, Hamilton foreshadows the all-consuming focus that subsequent events will have on Alice's life:
When I came to the clearing I couldn’t see past the single glaring point of sunlight, dancing on the water.She gives a specific feel to the death of little Lizzy:
I pulled her up and slung her over my shoulder, tripping through the water, screaming then, screaming for help. I didn’t know how to make enough noise, to be heard. I was shrieking with so much force I felt as if I might spit, and yet all the world was placid, still. The leaves in the trees hung limp like palsied hands…. Lizzy’s skin was rubbery, her face the gray of an old carp, her lips as dark as blueberries. Her wide, unblinking eyes were the color of mud.A return visit to the pond late in the book, after the farm has been sold:
I could see the pond, dull and still, in the distance. I leaned against an enormous burr oak and it came to me then, not only in my intellect, but also in my limbs, my blood, my skin: Lizzy wasn’t here in Prairie Center anymore. It was a comfort to feel the tree’s cold, spiny bark through my sweater, to feel my own fingers in my mouth. The grief, I knew, wasn’t really ever going to go away. I leaned there for a long time, feeling the sharpness, the weight of the thing that was Lizzy’s absence…. The water was motionless. It looked, through the trees, as if it was a large eye that would have been grateful for a lid, for sleep.In A Map of the World, the barn claimed her husband. The dust has energy. The sun is fierce. Plants have vocal cords. Nature reclaims a dead child. Grief takes on the sharpness of a burr oak; the pond longs for sleep.
What do you think: could images like these make your novel distinctive, too? While many writers describe their settings as if through the lens of a camera, most fall short of evoking their settings as character.
Challenge: Give it a try! From your work-in-progress, take a sentence and try rewriting to give your setting some personality of its own. This is a creative exercise so feel free to go over the top—you can always tone it down later—then please share!
Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, an independent manuscript evaluation service. What she believes: 1. Editing forever changed the way she reads. 2. Well-crafted moments of brilliance help her forgive many other problems in a manuscript. 3. All writers have strengths and weaknesses—but why settle for weaknesses? 4. We can learn as much from what other authors do right as we can from what we do wrong. This is her series, "Busted!—An author caught doing something right." Connect with Kathryn at her Facebook Author Page and Twitter.