It’s a rainy, humid weekend in Denver, which makes me a little homesick for Oklahoma. After my last post’s suggestion to slow down and listen, I wanted to focus on another bit of advice that got pushed to the side: which is to observe. Growing up in Oklahoma, I was certainly exposed to severe weather. The distinct flatness made you feel like the sky went on forever while the land just floated beneath the clouds. But these aren’t the only elements to Oklahoma as a setting. There’s the red mud, which smells a bit sulfurous and clings to everything, especially after an autumn rain has kicked it up to the car hoods or the middle trunk of the blackjack oaks. There are fields of switch grass, sometimes flooded, with dilapidated barns falling to bits, and catfish-infested lakes, blue and shining, but full of gritty water that becomes truly purple at sunset. The smells of Oklahoma are dusty, verdant, and always a little a damp in flavor. I remember a classic car, model T era, just lying on a ravine slope near a lake and rusting slowly to death. I recall miles of weathered cattle fencing often displaying rusted signs for stores and brands long out of business. Such imagery makes it easy to paint the poverty and decay I saw in Oklahoma growing up, but it also generalizes a setting which has malls, rock climbing gyms set in old grain silos, incredible botanic gardens, and a sprawling zoo. When I tell people I’m from Oklahoma I usually get a refrain from the musical or some question like “did you ride horses to school?”
It’s easy to reduce setting to a repetitive stereotype, and such generalizations occur to us because they are convenient. We use them to summarize someone or somewhere quickly and in doing so we often misconstrue. Yet a writer can go too far in the other direction: we can describe a setting to death. This is a particular pitfall in epic fantasy, where writers strive to bring a world alive. There’s a fine line between injecting realism and over-burdening or over-sharing. The less like our world the fantasy is, the harder the job of conveying the setting to the reader in a concise fashion. All of the Oklahoma details above are things I’ve pulled from memory, and I could easily continue in this vein for a long while, but it’s important to know when to pull back from setting. Setting is a character, an essential element to your story, and an important tool in your writing kit; but setting alone is devoid of purpose. The further I take my writing, the more I see it as systemic: each element is crucial and interrelated to the others. Setting must be connected to character, to plot, and conflict in order for it to purpose. No element of your work should be static unless its static quality drives the tension. For example, a small town kid who desperately wants a change in her life and feels strangled by the unchanging environment. As you observe the world around you and craft setting for your stories, it’s important to include details that bring the setting alive and surpass the easy stereotype. It is equally important that the characters inhabit the setting in a relatable way: engage all five senses with critical details. Balance this with the level of detail. Don’t overwhelm the reader with non-essential information but engage them. So much of writing is a delicate balancing act and learning to use your voice to walk the very fine line that’s right for your work.