Saturday, March 3, 2012

Looking Through A Writer's Eyes

How important is setting to a story? VERY. Especially in a mystery, where an unthinkable act has been committed and ordinary people, nice people, are forced to look at the dark side of human nature, into the most hidden corners of their own hearts and to confront secrets they try to hide–even from themselves.

The setting for my latest novel, LOVE AND NOT DESTROY, is a small town, as picture-perfect as anything designed by Walt Disney. There are clean streets, lined with small shops, illuminated by vintage lampposts hung with colorful flowering baskets. Walking along these streets are smiling, open-faced people, civil and friendly, seemingly in control of their destiny. Can anything be this perfect? As a writer, I hope not. More accurately, I won’t allow it to be. There’s no story in perfection. I’m compelled to seek the snake in Eden.

My eye sweeps Paradise’s horizon and rests on a hill to the south. There, I see the town jewel, the pride and joy of its citizenry: an imposing, castle-like edifice containing over 40,000 artifacts documenting their history. Here are the tools and the toys, the gadgets and gimcrackery that tell how these people became who they are. There’s an exhibit showcasing the healing arts, another that features articles of transportation and communication, and countless examples of ingenious contraptions man has devised to make life better. There’s a replica of an old-fashioned schoolroom, with a slate resting sweetly on a small desk. The museum is full of inspiring displays that show items of progress and light. How nice. How comfortable. But not quite my cup of tea. Let’s move on–to the very top level. There we find a gallows. Wonderful! Just what I was looking for. Could there be a more graphic reminder of humanity’s dark side?

Seeking a setting for my story, I find this juxtaposition of dark and light irresistible. I have to tinker with it, manipulate the sunshine and the shadow. I need to show how fine is the line between the two, how delicate the balance. How can I do this? I imagine our little town at the height of its perfection–a soft, sunny weekend in early May. Dogwood blossoms frame every view. Tulips nod on every lawn. The museum is at its most festive, all spruced up for Folk Fest. The civil, friendly people are in a celebratory mood, enjoying a well-earned holiday. A shout rings out: “Blood! It’s all over him.” Everything changes. The illusion of perfection is shattered–and the story begins.

Cruel? Maybe. I like to think of myself of a reasonably nice person, but as a writer, I love upsetting the applecart. I’m not alone in this. Think of all the stories set in amusement parks or empty theatres. It seems the brighter the setting, the more frightening it becomes when the lights are extinguished. Add a doll or a tiny kitten and it becomes even more threatening. Nothing produces a more delicious tingle down the spine than a scary setting. And there’s nothing more fun to create.


Victoria M. Johnson said...


Nice post. It's great to see how you create your interesting settings.

Sandy Cody said...

Thanks, Victoria. Some places just seem to be waiting to have their stories told.

Carolyn Brown said...

Great post. One of my previous editors told me to put my characters in a tree and throw rocks at them. Sounds like you throw rocks at your perfect that keeps your readers on the edge of their seats!

Beate Boeker said...

Where did you take that picture, Sandy?

Sandy Cody said...

Carolyn, you always make me laugh. What a great idea for plotting any kind of a story.

Beate, that's The Mercer Museum - right here in Doylestown, PA. It's a fascinating place.

Thanks to both of you for taking time to comment.