The exercise looks simple, but it’s not. Apart from a few students who had recently taken a vacation, most of them complained that they found the exercise extremely difficult. “I didn’t know what to write about,” was the most general complaint, of course. That’s why setting is a struggle for the beginner; we don’t see the places we inhabit. We take them for granted, and so, when we write, we skip them.
This is bad, of course, because, as the old saying goes, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. A story or a poem with an absent or weak setting will feel “thin” even though the reader may not notice exactly what is missing. But how can you do a good job at recreating (or simply creating) something that you have trouble seeing yourself? The answer is that you must somehow learn to see again. You must perform, if you will, an unheimlich maneuver, learn to make the familiar unfamiliar. The Freudian concept of the unheimlich or “the uncanny” is extremely useful in creating setting. Basically, it refers to something that is both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, and therefore creeps you out. Think of those dreams where you’re in your house, only it’s not your house somehow. Something’s off, you can’t pin it down. You become obsessed with it; you notice every detail in the attempt to figure it out.
While you don’t want to make all your settings creepy, you do need that unheimlich ability to notice what you normally don’t. When we are constantly surrounded by familiar settings, our brains go on autopilot. You stop seeing the colors on the walls, you stop smelling the air freshener, you don’t hear the constant drone of the air conditioner. You only notice what is different—when something’s burning in the kitchen, for example. This is our brain’s way of conserving energy. Imagine noticing everything all the time—you’d be so overwhelmed with sensory information, you wouldn’t be able to do much.
What is good for our peace and productivity, however, is bad for our writing. We think there’s nothing to describe about our daily settings. Most of us live very dull lives. Home. School. Work. The gym. The mall. The same five or six settings, week after week after week. Every city has the same Target, the same CVS, the same broad avenue leading to a supermarket parking lot. Our worlds become invisible. When I actually make it to the beach, I feel like I’m on another planet. That’s why those students who had recently been on a vacation fared a little better, and why, when given the assignment to write about setting, we often reach for the latest unfamiliar experience like the latest vacation.
You can’t keep your characters on vacation all the time, however. In truth, our stories belong in our daily lives, in those five or six settings that are, well, boring. So, what to do? How can we create realistic settings and rich worlds without truly seeing them or boring the reader? About boring the reader, never you mind. We all have a strong voyeuristic impulse. Your house may be boring to you, but it’s super interesting to anyone else. Just think of the last time you were at a new friend’s house. You know you scanned the bookshelves and the music rack, the paintings and pictures. You peeked inside the medicine cabinet and behind the shower curtain when you went to the bathroom. All the mundane details of your new friend’s daily life—things that she or he probably hasn’t noticed for years—were of extreme interest to you.
So then only one problem remains: your ability to effectively write about something you have trouble seeing. Take a lesson from the makers of air fresheners and candles. Those air fresheners or candles that “cycle” between two fragrances know that the trick to putting your brain back in notice mode is change.
One good way to do this is to keep a journal in which you describe your daily settings daily. The proposition might seem boring, but you’d be surprised what the expectation of having to describe something will make you notice.
Some classic moves involve pretending to describe the place to an alien or a blind person. These don’t work very well, I think. The alien viewpoint makes everything seem, well, alien, and that’s not what you’d be going for in a regular realistic piece. The trick to a rich realistic setting, ironically, is to make it disappear. It’s holding everything together like a great pair of Spanx, but it’s not jumping out at you and overwhelming other aspects of the story. The alien viewpoint will do that. The blind guide viewpoint is a little better, because at least it’s human. The problem with the blind guide, however, is selection. The only way setting becomes boring is if it’s unnecessary, too much. Your blind pal might need to know the location of every piece of furniture in your living room in order to successfully navigate it, but your reader can’t really do anything with the fact that the sofa is at twelve o’clock and the armchair at three.
Additionally, the blind guide viewpoint makes you focus too much on visual detail, which is already a danger given that vision is our dominant sense. Same thing goes for the paint-your-setting idea. What you want is a selection of meaningful sensory detail.
The sensory part is easy. We’ve got five: sight, smell, sound, touch, and taste. Noticing these is a simple listing task. Sit in the place you want to describe (or close your eyes and imagine it), and spend a fixed amount of time on each sense, listing what you notice on a piece of paper. The result will be a meaningless collection of detail, but isolating each sense will help you notice what you need to.
The next step is to select and arrange the details on your list. First, determine the dominant impression you want to make. For example, if you want to convey a sense of tension, you might want to skip the smell of baking cookies that you genuinely noticed but doesn’t go with your goal. Cross out some things, add others.
These two preliminary steps are mostly mechanical, however, and won’t get you all the way to fantastic. The only way to get there is to step outside yourself and get to know the reader. You must be aware of the reader’s expectations, and play with that. These are the right “stranger’s eyes,” not the alien’s or the blind pal’s. Begin by asking yourself, what does the reader already know about this place? What doesn’t she?
One of the most difficult places to write about is the Caribbean, because people have so many expectations of it. Say so much as the word and immediately it conjures up palm trees, sandy beaches, and clear blue waters: clichés. One of the pieces I make my students read early is “The Caribbean, By a Nose,” a wonderful short piece by Jerry V. Haines. Haines does a good job of recognizing the reader’s expectations about palm trees and the like, and arranges his piece around unexpected details like trash fires and jitney exhaust. It’s a good lesson in “I bet you didn’t know” writing.
Ultimately, however, the best way to get to know the reader is to become one yourself. Reading about the Caribbean or Miami is a real hoot for me sometimes. I love it how Miami, for example, is always somehow Miami Beach. The pastel art deco hotels of Ocean Drive, the Miami Vice vision of the city, so predominate the global imagination that it’s as if the rest of the city doesn’t exist. In truth, Miami Beach is a separate city, and a small one at that. Reading about it, however, creates a really productive impulse in me to tell you what it’s really like, and that corrective desire can be awakening.
Research the places you intend to write about. For example, one intriguing piece I got from my students was a recollection of a visit to Portugal. She describes—quite well!—the delicious taste of samosas. To me, samosas are Indian food, and I’m dying to know about that colonial relationship, and how Indian culture is part of Portuguese culture these days. You may not know these things off the top of your head even if you’re Portuguese, but a little background history can really enrich your sense of a place, and ours.
Places, in other words, are not just sensory landscapes. The beginner forgets sometimes that places are an equation: land + people / time. Just like we are so used to our daily settings that we don’t see them, we often live in places so familiar to us that we don’t see or perhaps don’t know the historical changes that have made them. A great example of how knowing a place’s history can enrich your ability to write about it is Joan Didion’s “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” from Slouching Towards Bethlehem (yes, I’m stealing the example from William Zinsser’s On Writing Well). This is a great example of how to write about a place. Not only does Didion describe the physical landscape, but also she knows how the history of the place has shaped the lives of the people who live in it. Suddenly finding out that the city you’ve been living in for the past ten years was founded by mobsters can really make you see it with new eyes. There is always something interesting about places if you dig long enough.
But what if you’re writing about a completely made up place, or just one small room? Even galaxies far, far away have elements of the real in them, so knowing how real places work can help you build fake ones. As far as tiny rooms go, they too have tiny histories. How you decided to paint every wall a different color despite having only twenty square feet of living space, for example, because you couldn’t bear the thought of living with white walls. Conversely, the white walls that came with the apartment and that you never bothered to paint because you always thought you’d be moving “soon.” There’s no such thing as “nothing to write about” when it comes to setting. We don’t live in vacuums. We are always somewhere, even when we close our eyes, even in a sensory deprivation tank. Create a sense of attentiveness—learn to make the familiar new—and you will be surprised at how much you’ve been missing.