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August 1, 2011

READY...SETTING...GO!

By Kim Harris Thacker, writer, mommy, and Bookshop Talk host

You know what I love? Books. Surprise! I especially love books with wonderful settings. Give me L.M. Montgomery’s Avonlea, please, or J.K. Rowling’s Hogsmeade! Give me the cozy cabin in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Big Woods of Wisconsin, or a crowded assembly room in Jane Austen’s Meryton. Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Yorkshire moors thrill me, and the very thought of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland gives me a headache and makes me crave mini cakes frosted in violent shades of pink and yellow.

If a book has fascinating settings, chances are, I will devour it, pink frosting and all.
In her book, ONE WRITER’S BEGINNINGS (Harvard University Press, 1984), Pulitzer Prize-winning author Eudora Welty wrote, “Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else… Fiction depends for its life on place. Place is the crossroads of circumstance, the proving ground of, What happened? Who’s here? Who’s coming?…”

Think of your favorite novel. Does it take place in Forks, Washington? Middle Earth? Panem? Could you possibly transfer that favorite story to another location and have it work as well? Or does the setting play an integral role in the construction of the story? I believe that truly captivating fiction utilizes setting almost as a character. The setting is essential to the telling of the story. The sites I listed above (Forks, Middle Earth, Panem) are overall settings of novels that are somewhat action-based. But even seemingly “gentle” novels utilize powerful settings.

Moon Over ManifestThe recent Newbery-winning novel, MOON OVER MANIFEST, by Clare Vanderpool, is a work of historical fiction about Abilene Tucker, a young girl who is sent by her drifter father to live in Manifest, Kansas (a fictional location), while he finds work. Manifest is a melting-pot for immigrants from all over Europe; and Abilene, who seeks to find her own place in the world, meshes with the residents of this dusty Kansas town right well.

What are your favorite novels? Do they utilize a powerful setting or two? Remember, a setting isn’t just the overall location of a story–it can be the location of a scene, or even a character’s mental landscape. We would love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

11 comments:

MKHutchins said...

I love how just reading the names you listed brought that sense-of-place rushing in. The Redwall books are a favorite of mine, too. Over the course of 12+ books, that's the unifying things -- dusty red sandstone, delicious food (does food count as setting?). One of the big reasons I loved Westerfeld's Leviathan was the detailed steampunk setting. Book of a Thousand Days was downright refreshing, and one of the "oh neat!" things about picking up Princess of the Midnight Ball was its fairy-tale-Germany backdrop, instead of generic-fantasy-setting. Got to stop, but I love books with settings that make me feel like I'm somewhere instead of anywhere.

Jessica Day George said...

I want to go to Hogwarts!

Anonymous said...

Whatever book I am reading is my favorite place to be...that being said I have a fondness for Regency England...reading is my escape from grown up reality...love to travel far and wide in my imagination

Kim said...

MKHutchins: If food doesn't count as setting, then I quit! One of my favorite things about Laura Ingalls Wilder's FARMER BOY is all the descriptions of food. It's my "comfort food" book. :)

Jessica: ME TOO!!!

Anonymous: ME TOO!!! :)

Ems said...

Hogwarts for sure, Middle Earth, Prydain, Narnia, and Jane Austen's England. Gorgeous settings that I picture so vividly.

Laura said...

Another vote for Hogwarts, and especially the places that become characters: the girls' bathroom, the Room of Requirement, the Quidditch pitch, etc.

I also love the descriptions of New Orleans in Anne Rice's vampire books; I loved the city before I ever visited because of her scenery.

Another great setting is the African jungles of Barbara Kingsolver's THE POISONWOOD BIBLE, a place of mystery and menace.

pie said...

Kim, the food is what I remember first from FARMER BOY too. But I've always wondered, how did Almanzo put a piece of pie in his pocket without the pie oozing all over the place?

I think setting is why I like historical fiction (or books written a long time ago) so much. With the time change automatically comes a setting change.

My favorite book setting is probably Prince Edward Island. I just reread ANNE OF GREEN GABLES and reveled with Anne in the beauty of her new home.

Kim said...

Ems: I forgot all about Narnia! There's a grove of huge cedars in the town where I live, and whenever I see the grove, I think "NARNIA!" I'm not sure why. I guess that's the magic of books: We see scenery as we want to see it--especially in fantasy novels.

Laura: I've never been to New Orleans, but it's on the Wish I Could Visit list. :) And I've never read any of the Anne Rice books, though I went through a huge vampire phase as a teenager (LONG before the Twilight books came out!). What is it with teenagers and vamps?

pie: YES! How did Almanzo manage pie-in-the-pocket??? I adore historical fiction too. I think you nailed it that a story set in the past automatically has so much setting. And Prince Edward Island! Gotta go there someday.

Amy {BookshopTalk.com} said...

Another big vote for the best setting in (my) literary history: Hogwarts. Literally magical!

On that note, Harry Potter fans MUST visit the theme park in Florida! Save every penny you have - it's worth it!! I've already gone twice, and I live 1000s of miles away :)

Jane Austen novels, for sure. I could get lost anywhere in England (real or fictional) and be perfectly happy with my surroundings.

Jane Eyre. Not that I wasn't afraid of haunted/mysterious houses before I read this awesome book, but . . . chills.

I loved the setting for the Mitford Series by Jan Karon. Small town, tight knit but gossipy community, country church goers at their best. Loved that, and never expected to.

And not that I "liked" the setting, but how about the HUNGER GAMES? Talk about sucking you into the belly of hell.

The setting in THE HELP is especailly visual; you can practically FEEL the humidity. I swear my hair was frizzy by the end of it!

And I have to put in a plug here for Jessica Day George's upcoming novel, TUESDAYS AT THE CASTLE! (being released Oct 11, 2011). The castle has a mind and will of its own, and changes - growing new rooms and staircases, adding/taking away furniture - according to how much he likes or doesn't like its inhabitants :) It's like a gigantic room of requirement, but you never know what to expect! Lots of fun!

More than I think most readers notice, setting has quite a lot to do with how much someone enjoys a book!

Valette M. said...

Anything by Brandon Sanderson tops my list. His worlds are VERY grandiose.
"I want to win a book."

Jaina said...

I loved MOON OVER MANIFEST! It was such a great book, with an awesome setting (as you said). I also love Hogwarts (just like everybody else!), Camp Half Blood, the Castle in Septimus Heap, the institution in THE GIRL WHO COULD FLY, and pretty much every well-done setting I've ever read. I also love the settings in Margaret Peterson Haddix's "the Missing" series, which is a time travel series in which every book focuses on a completely different time and place.