Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Home: The Setting Of Our Childhoods

When it comes to setting in fiction, I’m wondering if each of us has ingrained within our being a setting we feel most comfortable describing--a place where sight and sound, texture and smell, time and character collide with a rush of memories so powerful that they are impossible to ignore.  For most of us, it’s a place we call home.

I grew up in the sixties in an eclectic small town in upstate New York--“Northern Appalachia” as poet Robert Morgan likes to call it--where silent cows grazed in a pasture just beyond our backyard fence accompanied by the clanking rhythm of plastic injection molding machines from my one of my father’s factories, which also happened to be beside the yard.   I remember the smell of my mother cooking pancakes and sausage in the kitchen, the softness of the living room carpet my twin brother and I ran our Hot Wheels cars across, the empty stillness of the house after my father died.

Downtown was only two blocks away.  It featured one traffic signal, an incredibly well-endowed public library, the Congregational church we attended, a Civil War monument honoring a famous local Union officer killed in action, a drinking fountain that runs cold to this day with the local water’s slight taste of sulfur --said to be good for your health--and a small smattering of stores. The pristine Chenango River, home to early morning artillery on the opening day of duck season and where the fishing was usually good, ran smooth and silent a half a mile beyond.  The fire whistle blew every day at noon.

You see what I mean?  I can go back right now and conjure up a thousand more details from the time and place of my childhood--the long, bone-chilling winter blizzards, wind rustling through the high corn,  the pungent scent of fresh mowed hay, and precious summer heat baking the air.  A mixture of the natural and the manmade, peopled by an industrious population of survivors: farmers, factory workers, artists and artisans, some of whom come from families that have lived there for generations.  Home in some ways is like a touchstone for me when it comes to my writing and especially when it comes to creating setting.

For the past twenty years I have lived in the South.  Before that, I lived and worked around New York City and other metropolitan areas, so those influences often play a big role in my writing as well, but when it comes to conjuring up the details of a setting, as the cliché goes, there’s no place like home.

Andy Straka is the author of the Shamus Award-winning and Anthony and Agatha Award-nominated Frank Pavlicek novels. A licensed falconer and co-founder of the popular Crime Wave at the annual Virginia Festival of the Book, Andy is also the author of Record Of Wrongs, which Mystery Scenemagazine calls "a first-rate thriller." His latest novel is Kitty Hitter (ISBN 1594148120 Cengage/Five Star $25.95).


Anonymous said...

I would probably avoid setting anything in the place I grew up mostly because it would be dead boring - for me. Yes, I can conjure the details in my mind but I want to create new spaces and places.

Thanks for sharing this post and getting us all thinking about our use of setting.

Anonymous said...

Great descriptions. I felt like I was ther.

Karin Gillespie said...

I grew up in Minnesota and have many memories of cold, silent winters, deserted streets and snow piled up past the windows. It wasn't until I moved to the South and visited a lot of small towns that I was motivated to write.

Small towns fill up my well like no place else. I like to eat slow-cooked grits in a diner with framed pictures of John Wayne, plastic covered menus and a waitress named Mavis. "A Tear in My Beer" plays on the jukebox and they actually have streak of lean on the menu. Man. That is heaven to me.

c.a. Marks said...

Wow. How incredible, you posted this article at the precise timing that I've been thinking the SAME thing. It's a sign. ;-) I know that I HAVE to write it now.

Laura Marcella said...

It's so true! I create fictional towns in my stories, but they closely resemble my home town. :)

Theresa Shadrix said...

Thanks for sharing memories of your sounds very Mayberry. :) I recently wached the 10th Anniversary of the documentary "Brother's Keeper" and I have to be honest in that I had sterotyped New York and some of the Northern neck of the woods! What a beautiful part of the country!

Andy said...

Thanks for your comments. I'm always struck, when reading fiction, how a vivid, memorable setting can become almost a character in and of itself.

Peggy Webb said...

You're right. Home is the place I keep coming back to in my novels. In fact, when I use another setting, one I've researched on the Internet or during brief travels, I feel untethered. Setting becames just a name on a page instead of a living, breathing character.

Oh, Karin, I adored your description of the diner with the waitress named Mavis!

Augusta Scattergood said...

Your downtown could be mine. Terrific library, a smattering of stores, many other similarities. Though yours is in a completely different part of the world and my water fountains probably had "white" and "colored" signs over them. small towns are very much alike, whether in Mississippi (mine) or N.Y.
Thanks for reminding me of this.