Sunday, 9 October 2011

Chewing Scenery Pt. 2

One of my good friends described our hometown to her new college pals thusly:

"You ever drive down that long stretch of highway with mountains on your left and flat on your right, and you see that tiny little town out in the distance and you think to yourself, Man, I'm glad I don't live there.  
Well, that's my home."
Even with memories of learning to quickly turn my back to oncoming wind so that powerful blasts of sand would sting the backs of my legs instead of my face or placing my hands on the backseat of the car to absorb at least a little heat before subjecting the backs of my knees to plastic melting temperatures, I get a little something in my throat when I pass through my hometown. It's the setting that made me, and it still invokes a complex connection of emotions.

With all the heat and the dirt and the never-ending sun, it still introduced me to the sweet scent of wet dust just after rain begins to fall and the sight of the desert bursting into color as long dormant plants taste the smallest amount of water.

Obviously, the settings that make us affect our feelings, but unless you're writing a memoir, you want your setting to affect your readers' feelings. In order to pull your audience's strings, you'll have to speak through your characters to tell them what to feel.

This telling readers what to feel goes hand-in-hand with show, don't tell. Remember way back when someone first told you to show, don't tell? Remember that confused feeling (or if you are like me, that bullheaded I know better feeling...yeah, still trying to outgrow that one) deep in your chest resulting from the kid's book you were reading at the time? The character is angry. The author writes, Sara is angry. You know, Sara is probably angry. But what kind of spiritual fulfillment am I getting from a story that doesn't take the time to describe the socioeconomic plight of low class space jumper engineers who are angry because they can't find their alien six-eyed cat and their boss just nixed overtime citing budget concerns?

This all has to do with scenery, just bear with me.

If she is angry, really pissed off, everything will compound that anger. The door will stick, the lights will flicker and spark that headache into a full blown migraine, the shoes squeaking on the floor will put her one step away from psychotic break. You remember those days when you're late on a deadline and the mail server goes down? Obviously, it's just to inconvenience you. But it's a part of your setting (for the purposes of this example, you, like me, work in a cube farm and suffer from a dangerous co-dependency on technology stuck somewhere between the late nineties and early oughts, you know, before DSL really took off and when IT guys coined the fix-all, "Have you tried restarting it?"). All those little things that never mattered before become a symbiotic part of your emotional state.

Clive Barker's Coldheart Canyon is one of those odd horror novels that didn't really scare me after I put it down. I could walk away from it; I could sleep easy at night. When I was reading it, however, the ever changing mosaic and the desert wild with the perverted creatures running rampant made my breathe hold in my lungs, just in case I attracted their attention before my eyes could turn away from the page.

Think of the setting. It's a horror novel tied to the past of Hollywood opulence of the 1920's or so and the Hollywood opulence of today. It's tied to the depravity of both eras, and a sense of richness that is best viewed through the sepia toned nostalgia lenses. Once Barker has you thinking about the suits and the gowns and the men and the women, he turns it all around until you get peacock bodied human headed monsters roaming the canyon, looking for humans to rape. So...horror.

Coldheart Canyon could have been a romance - take away the monsters and the horror bit, right? Not quite. How far does the desert stretch in a romance? Will it reach out to the horizon without a soul in sight? Will it sear the flesh from your arms and burn your eyes with mirages? Will the house turn cold and hidden in the dark, with twists and turns meant for trapping you with the bad things hot at your heels?

In a romance, the desert will be cool, just beginning to heat up. Romance in the desert happens in the early morning, I think, or late at night when the sky has bloomed with stars. If you are reading something that requires a sense of "all will be well" by the end, the ground beneath your character's feet might crumble and the weather will turn against him, but something in the scenery will still signal to the reader that comfort is soon at hand.

The house will stand. The moon will rise, the forest will be curiously devoid of bears, except from a safe distance, the bad guy will be safely defeated (or a rake in disguise who can be cured with magic virgin sex, if you are writing a romance circa Harlequin eighties style, but that's a discussion for another time).

How does your setting affect your character? How does your character's mood affect our perception of the setting?

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