Susanna here, just back from the sunny south and the wonderful Tucson Festival of Books, where I had the privilege of sitting on two panels—one called "Keeping History Fresh" (pictured above), with Susan Meissner and Kristina McMorris, moderated by Anne Spieth, and another called "Transported by Words", moderated by Victoria Marie Salajko, in which R.O. Kwon, Shobha Rao, and I talked about the use of setting in fiction.
Both panels were great, and the questions we were asked could provide the jumping-off point for any number of posts here, but in the panel on setting we were asked, “What writers do you admire because of the way they create the places in their books?”
My choice was easy: Mary Stewart.
For me, no writer can so easily transport me with their words into a landscape I have never seen, and do it so convincingly that when I finally travel to that place, I feel I know it well.
On my writing reference bookshelf by my desk I have a well-thumbed copy of Writing Suspense and Mystery Fiction, edited by A.S. Burack and published in Boston by The Writer, Inc., in 1977. And on pages 190 to 196 of that book is an article titled “Setting and Background in the Novel”, written by Mary Stewart herself, in which—along with her advice on writing settings—she reveals the origin of her own process:
“Almost without realizing it, I have come to have the reputation of setting my suspense stories exotically—Avignon, Skye, Savoy, Corfu—and of using these settings not just as background color, but dynamically, almost as a ‘first character’ of the book. I do, in fact, start with the setting. I used to think it was chance that led me into this way of writing. When I wrote my first book, Madam, Will You Talk?, I had never written a story before, and it seemed natural, in that icy winter when the impulsion to write finally outweighed even my diffidence in starting, to choose the most exciting—and the hottest—place I had then been to. I found, in the writing of the book, that the tough, strange, romantic setting exactly suited the kind of thing I wanted to write; that it did, in fact, dictate its own kind of plot; and that to allow it to permeate every corner of the story could do nothing but enrich that story.
“This was obviously the kind of thing that suited me, so, book by book, from this kind of start I formed my own personal work map. A place which had had a powerful impact on my senses and imagination would suggest a story line and an atmosphere into which I could put my characters, and let their reactions to the setting, and to each other in that setting, work themselves out into a plot. The fact that I chose a different setting for each of my books made (I think) for variety in treatment and atmosphere, even though the basic ingredients of the ‘suspense novel’ must to some extent stay the same.”
I remember, after reading that the first time, trying to compare it to the way my own stories developed—because generally with me I find the people or the situation first, and that determines where the story must be set. Although at least once—with my book The Splendour Falls—the setting found me first and I went looking for a story I could set there.
What is it for you, if you’re a writer? Do the places find you first, or do the stories lead you to the places?
And for readers, what writers do you admire because of how they write their settings? Who transports you?