I picked up a book recently because it’s set in New Orleans. The plot sounded okay, but really, New Orleans. As someone who used to live in the American Lowcountry, I miss the South. As an Anne Rice fan, I feel I’ve visited New Orleans many times, even though I haven’t.
I was excited to start this book, escape the desert for a while, and be lulled into a sensuous stupor by the sights, sounds, and smells of what many consider the most beautiful city in the world.
To say I’ve been disappointed is an understatement. Here’s what I’ve gotten so far: “There was something about New Orleans—something about the air itself—a certain sultriness found nowhere else, that silky touch of humidity on skin like fingertips dragged slowly over your flesh.”
Great! And that was the first line. Since that first line, nothing, nadda. The author could be writing about Wall, South Dakota, and I wouldn’t know. Where is my French Quarter? Where is the overwhelming, sweet scent of magnolia? Where are the horse-drawn buggies for tourists?
As a writer, setting is important. In my novels (even in my short stories), the city becomes a character. When I wrote Life without Harry, my readers rejoiced over places they recognized and couldn’t wait to visit places they did not. Same goes for Something about a Ghost, set in Phoenix. You know damn well you’re in Phoenix. You feel the dry heat and smell the spring-blooming orange blossoms. You see the purple-red sunsets, because Phoenix has a persona. Setting should have a persona.
As I mentioned, I was once lucky enough to live in the American Lowcountry. I lived in Charleston, South Carolina (aka “Heaven on Earth”), and the novel I’m writing at present takes place there. An excerpt:
“The air felt crisp, clean, light, and although most of the flowers were long dead, the air still smelled like some sweet bloomer over the usual scent of saltwater and wet sand. He clunked down the metal stairs that led to the ground floor and paused as his boat shoes met grass.
“He walked through the yard and its overabundance of dormant gardenia plants, their waxy leaves still green and lush despite the chill. The Crepe Myrtles at the end of his sidewalk were almost bare, beyond a few dark orange leaves that clung. He pulled a leaf free and held it between his fingers as he took a left and walked down Church Street toward Battery Park.
“He passed the houses where rich people lived, passed their well-kept gardens, their BMWs. He passed over brick roads, beneath the sprawling, wicked arms of Angel Oaks. He paused at Stoll’s Alley, a tiny walkway of brick, overwrought with climbing ivy—one of his usual short cuts—and kept moving until he entered Battery Park, the very tip of the Charleston peninsula.
“He stayed on the edge of the Battery. He stood on the walkway overlooking the harbor with his elbows leaned against the cold metal rail. The sky was cloudy, so the water looked dark green, tumultuous as though a storm would soon arrive. In the distance, he could see Fort Sumter and an American flag that flapped in the wind. There was a wind, a slight one that brushed softly over his face and brought with it the smell of dead fish.”
Do you smell the smells? See the sights? Feel the air? I hope so. I worked hard to take you to Charleston, even if you’ve never been there. This is setting, and for some reason, we’ve forgotten it. We’ve gotten so caught up in plot, character, conflict—but what is a story without a world, a sense of place?
This is a reminder to writers and readers alike: don’t let books get away with weak settings. Don’t be lulled by pretty people. People are but a thin pie slice of what is really happening in a story. Don’t disappoint me. I’ll find you and write about you on my blog.