The ten year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina has just passed. Yes, the devastation was notable, but I also remember commentary that the storm affected mostly the marginalized African American portion of that city the most and this may have affected the government’s response to the victims. Specifically, there were concerns that the aid would have been faster if the population most affected was one with more inherent advantage. (I agree with this, by the way). It was not only the hurricane itself that made the news but the setting of the hurricane that really upped the drama: devastating areas where people were already struggling to survive.
Settings in books can serve the same purpose: increasing the drama and conflict of an event. It also affords us a perspective on places and times in history that otherwise we would not have.
I have read multiple articles on how setting affects a plot and characters and can sometimes be considered a character in itself like on the Writer’s Write website, Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maas, and the AmericanWriters.com Creative Writing Podcast series by Tom Occipinti. I also noted in a previous post that Sara Gruen used setting as a catalyst for the main character’s change in At the Water’s Edge. I have blog posts about groups of books around a physical setting or period of time in mind.
Setting is important. Here are some of my favorites, just because they are cool:
New Orleans is cool in itself. This book combines the traditional creepy history of New Orleans with the more recent history of the devastation and abandonment of the city right after the hurricane. Not only is it the veiled and dark traditional New Orleans but an abandoned one where there is more danger and even more intrigue. Combine this with a teenage protagonist with uncertainties of her own and you have a gripping read.
Manhattan, the last 100 years: The Golem and the Jinni, and the Nero Wolfe series
I have already discussed my love for Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni, where the time and place require some real divides between groups of people as well as poverty and struggle to make a new life. This compounded with being two mythological, spiritual beings where there is no real place and the characters have to melt into a city where the divides are clear.
I have read about 37 Nero Wolfe books (some novels, novellas or collections of novellas) by Rex Stout which are mostly set in Manhattan from 1930’s, the first one, Fer de Lance, being published in 1934, up to the 50’s and 60’s. Wolfe, the detective for whom the series is named, has become rich by charging exorbitant fees for solving murders and other conundrums of the affluent. Of course the rich are fun to read about, but what about the rich in a booming cultural city in a prosperous time in history (post WWII)? Nero’s gourmet meals are discussed, adding to the opulence, as well as his daily four hours on an expensive hobby and maybe some hours actually working solving cases. His assistant, the narrator Archie Goodwin, is out mingling with the privileged at dancing and parties and flirting with lovely women and spending leisure time in their country estates. The setting and characters are somewhat fixed so I understand that Stout had to choose a setting that was rich with possibilities and had some upstate places where stories could also be set. I just love Manhattan anyway. I want to read The Orphan Master by Jean Zimmerman, which is in seventeenth century Manhattan.
Psychiatric hospitals: The Devil in Silver, Victor LaValle
Did you think I was going to say One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? I have not read that yet, actually.
One would think that a modern day psychiatric hospital would be a dramatic setting. If someone has never been on a psychiatric ward they seem scary and intense. Sometimes institutions can be very dramatic, true, but mainly, it’s mind-numbingly dull and regimented. The more routine drama is in petty conflicts between people scuffling for any little piece of control in their world, like controlling the TV channel. True, some characters in the hospital are spicy but many of the institutionalized are blunted from medication and from struggling with serious illness for a long time. LaValle manages to create a thriller within a very contained setting. The burned out hospital staff mostly function as adversaries to the main character and his allies to figure out who or what the beast is that is being harbored in their hospital. They are confined with a dangerous monster whom they have little power to avoid and the people who do know about the monster will not level with them. It’s nightmarish.
What looks like a normal apartment building on first glance: 14, Peter Clines
This eerie and mysterious apartment building is a character in itself. The remainder of the tenants, a diverse and well developed cast of characters in themselves, come together to determine the secrets behind the building in which they live. There are doors which are always locked, walls with writing and apartments whose tenants always end up committing suicide. Clines makes a mysterious residence mysterious for reasons other than ghosts and hauntings. Reviewers on Amazon discuss how this novel is more of a step out from Clines’ typical writing into emulating more classic and traditional horror and sci fi writers.
Other cool settings will be discussed in later posts. What are your favorites? Leave a comment below!