When “Setting” Met “SETTING”

(with apologies to Rob Reiner….)

Back-country Sedona, AZ; photo by the author

In 2013 I started my novel about Arizona seceding from the United States. Tired of the lack of civil discourse and the future of civil war rearing its ugly head, I turned to creating the world ahead of us.

Throughout the two years it took to complete the novel — and the four years following — I am stunned by how much I planned as fiction was not fact. Makes me wonder what Clarke or Bradbury would think of the world if they returned.

However, I was 40,000 words into the first draft when I realized I had to tighten my description of locations in Arizona. In the detention center, I described the stones, cactus spines, scat and sand that make up a desert floor. I considered how to make the miserable summer heat (it’s a dry heat…snort) shimmer off the pages. I identified a section in southeastern Arizona that could serve as a hidden detention center, near a rail line, with graffiti-dotted boxcars.

There was something wrong — I couldn’t put my finger on it. The characters were developing, leading me in directions I hadn’t considered, but the overall setting lacked impact. There was desert, Scottsdale mansions, sunsets over the White Tank Mountains, the Phoenix Convention Center with its fountains; I used maps and counted the number of ways in and out of eastern Arizona as potential escape routes. No doubt to the reader that I knew my way around Arizona.

But the setting was incomplete.

It was bits and pieces.

It was geography, but with no soul.

This was not the Arizona I had come to despise. This was a weak substitute.

What I realized was I had a “hidden” main character. My setting wasn’t just the desert or a convention center. It was ARIZONA itself.

Sure, there were individual scenes throughout Arizona that I could describe adequately, but ARIZONA — to those who lived there and moved away — is its own shady character.

Conservative, reactionary, Wild West remnants, Tombstone shoot-outs, several crooked governors over the years, a sheriff who prided himself on dressing convicts in pink overalls and residing them in tents, gangs, border issues, Native American casinos, water shortages and border disputes over the rivers, retirement communities, plunging employment, lack of new businesses, a decreasing tax base, a ridiculous plan for statewide educational testing, confiscating books from classrooms because of the teaching of Mexican-American Studies, no teacher raises for a decade….

The sad thing is I could still add at least a dozen more items to the character description of Arizona.

Once I realized my hidden character must be a more visible, integrated presence, my third revision focused on weaving all those annoying, political, religious, and Wild West traits seamlessly into every scene and chapter. Here’s a sample:

O’Malley paused, gathering thoughts. “Not sure, sir. As you say, this could be nothing more than some newfangled idea by the Arizona legislature to try and control more aspects of the federal government, rather than depending on the Feds — turn stuff over to the state. Prop 122 passed last election cycle allowing the state to flex its muscle against the federal government. On the other hand, the exodus from the state on this end is concerning. I’d be interested in knowing what’s happening at other major checkpoints headed out of the state. That would tell us if this is isolated or spread throughout Arizona. In all honesty, sir, my head is too taken up with my wife’s disappearance that I know I’m not thinking as well as I could.”

It’s definitely a better book, and I continue to use it as a teaching tool for myself because I’ve learned more about what makes a good biography…which no doubt has a few of you scratching your heads. Bear with me….

I’ve gone through several stages of reading biographies over the years, but I discovered this past year in brilliant stories about people that

it wasn’t just about them…it was about each person’s role in the complete history around them.

A person doesn’t live in isolation. A person’s story is about fitting in (or not) with the people and events around them — BOTH NEAR AND FAR.

History becomes a character.

In the case of Laura Ingalls Wilder (Prairie Fires by Caroline Fraser), it’s not just the Little House books, but the Native troubles in Minnesota, the capricious weather throughout the Midwest, the hand-to-mouth existence of new migrating farmers, the policies of the New Deal and what individuals actually thought about FDR’s policies and how they impacted them.

“Lincoln doubtless realized the consequences that the Homestead Act would have on the Union, and he had been worried about the Dakota’s plight. But he had never set foot in Minnesota. Distracted by the Civil War, he failed to foresee the havoc that a second wave of settlement (bringing the Ingalls) would unleash among the tribes still living among the lands America coveted.” (p.15)

https://www.flickr.com/photos/blmoregon/7339547776

“Even as Minnesota distributed aid, it expressed contempt for the destitute, enacting punitive regulations that required farmers to to prove they were completely bereft before applying for relief. In a cruel and counterproductive move, the state demanded that applicants sell any livestock they owned before receiving aid.” ( 74)

History as a character widens our lens to understand the impact of events on people. You can read the Little House books and think life was idyllic, but while the books were sold as fiction, children couldn’t help but see these times as truth.

This time the character of history has a major role in the biography. Not just date, time, and place of events as they apply to a particular person, but an increasingly wider lens of how events out of their control would affect them on a daily basis.

No matter what we write, we need to account for the underlying history of our setting and characters.

Renaissance woman, teacher, fiber artist, lover of history and mathematics, and world citizen; ProjectAgape.org

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