Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Busted!—Jane Hamilton Caught Using Setting as Character

In some novels, setting can provide the beating heart of the story. It is to a writer's advantage to recognize this: a story that couldn’t just happen anywhere—that is specific to one location—is a story that will feel distinctive to the reader, whether that reader be agent, editor, or end consumer.

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. 
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.


  1. What a beautiful use of language. I always try to use the setting to advantage but I could surely learn a thing or three from this author. Thank you for sharing.

  2. I included the landscape of the Yorkshire Dales in my romantic thriller, Breaking Faith. Here is a sample from the beginning of the book, 'Mrs Greenhough’s shop was still open when I reached the dark village, its lights illuminating the fresh snow on the pavement.' It's difficult to give a feeling for the way in which the landscape became another character with a single sentence, of course. It insinuated itself into the narrative as it was described through the eyes of the two viewpoint characters, Faith and Leigh, underlining their common love and their divergent views.
    Always a good idea to make the location live; it brings another layer of experience to the reader.

  3. In my first crime novel, the manor house where the protagonist lived was very much a "character"; I tried to evoke the gothic atmosphere as much as possible. I will definitely save this post for when I start the revision on that book.

    1. Great, Elle, I'm glad it could help. And yes, a gothic manor is the perfect kind of place to assert itself—what a shame it would be to have such an exotic setting and not make full use of it!

  4. These passages are evocative and haunting. So much can be done with "simple" landscape.

  5. Love this author and this book. The examples really bring your article to life. Thanks for sharing it. Descriptions and setting can make or break a reading experience for me. There is a special deliciousness if the author excels in these areas.

    1. "Deliciousness"—a perfect word. It's amazing how flat a plain old description can be. I say take what others would skim and instead make it sing.

  6. Shirley and Catherine—isn't it beautiful? It so richly engages the imagination and pulls you-as-reader into the prose. Ahhh.

  7. Stuart, I know it's hard to do in one sentence—but you did it! The fact that the shop "illuminated the fresh snow" really brings it to life. These don't have to be huge changes to be effective. Thanks for sharing!

  8. Good stuff, Kathryn ... but there you are with the exercises again ... sheeesh, even the BRP is trying to get me off the couch.

    1. Let your inner couch potato thrive, Christopher—I only hope to exercise the mind. ;)

      "The couch wrapped its over-stuffed arms around Christopher and lulled him back to sleep."

  9. I love reading books that have this kind of imagery. Those are my treats when I have time to savor my reading, as opposed to just having something to read at breakfast besides the cereal box. (smile)

    I use imagery in my writing, but not to the depth cited here. I think that works well for mainstream fiction, but the mystery and thriller genres usually call for a faster pace. Louise Penny does a good job of using more detailed imagery while keeping the suspense up, as is Dennis Lehane, but I have always thought of their books as novels with a mystery.

    1. Yes Maryann, Lehane is a great example of someone who writes more literary crime fiction. Engaging the reader at this depth does slow the pace, to be sure—it's not for every book, and it's not for every page of the books that should employ it.

  10. Love this post, Kathryn, and the reminder that English, even with its shortcomings, can create such eloquent and effective depictions. :-)


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. If a glitch is preventing you from commenting, visit our Facebook page and drop your wise words there: Blood-Red Pencil on Facebook