Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Setting: Stereotypes and Expectations

Sir George Clausen--Gathering Potatoes--1887 Driving my car to the airport, I was nearly blown off the road by a car on the highway. It flew by, then cut directly in front of me and sped off.

As I was being passed, I knew what state and county would be on the car’s license plate. Fulton County, Georgia.


Sure enough (and I’m always delighted when my setting stereotypes prove true), the car was indeed from Atlanta.

Charlotte, NC drivers are very aggressive, too. I’m sure when I’m speeding through small towns, the drivers look resentfully at my North Carolina tag and guess I’m from Charlotte.

Sometimes I think a book’s setting alone—without description—can set reader expectations: e.g., a small town. The reader might immediately conjure up a slow-paced, friendly, gossipy place. You don’t really have to work too hard if that’s what you’re interested in portraying. But if you want to twist it and show how cliquey, insular, and suspicious of change these towns can be, you’re taking the reader in a different direction.

I’m not a big fan of setting description; actually, I tend to skim through it when I’m reading unless the setting is very interesting to me—like Louise Penny’s books set in Canada. But just like I enjoy describing characters through dialogue and quirks, I like giving the reader a sense of place through the residents’ behavior and mindset.

Although I would have initially been disappointed if the car blowing me off the highway was from a small town in Mississippi, I think it would have intrigued me more. Why are they driving so fast? Are they late for their plane? Have a medical emergency? What’s the story?