Sara Israel, January 6, 2011
I’m in the early stages of a new writing project, and I’m thinking a lot about “the setting.”
When I was 14, I took a playwriting course where we were dropped off at various truck stops throughout rural Pennsylvania for several hours, each of us left completely on our own. (Yes. Seriously. Although in our instructor’s defense she did get parental permission.) We were told to observe.
I didn’t even fully realize what “observation” could be until I was at my very own truck stop, where I witnessed the most amazing and disgusting job interview I could have never ever imagined. I’m not sharing the details here because, though I did end up writing a brilliant (if I dare say) short play using the observations for that course, at some point I will absolutely use them again as an “adult and professional” writer.
The point is, that day I learned that something being a “truck stop” meant a lot more when you thought about the people who populated the truck stop, and why, and the small and large moments of their lives.
Ever since, I’ve been a believer. A believer that setting greatly affects who characters are and the choices that they make. “Environmental response,” so to speak.
Because for me, a setting isn’t simply “location.” It really is the environment. It’s about how a character feels about their tangible world, and therefore how they interact with it. Feeling and interaction using all five senses.
For each setting, some senses become more prevalent than others. A couple of years ago, and for a different writing project, I sat for three hours in the lobby of Cedars Sinai Hospital. Sight and sound are the big and obvious senses there (as they almost always are), though smell definitely gets some serious play too when you’re in a hospital. Touch was more “the absence of”—because in a hospital lobby you spend a lot of time thinking about what you’d rather not touch. And taste. . . Well, if I had licked the Intake Desk I might have been kicked out by one of the security guards.
Of course someone else might choose to obsessively run his or her hands and tongue over everything in the space. Goodness knows that would be a character choice, and potentially the launching or escalation of some pretty interesting conflict.
Some settings I know like the back of my hand; they are integral to me. A dusty rose- colored teenage bedroom. A New England college quad in autumn. A parched hiking path right before the sun sets.
The challenge with these settings is to extract myself from them as much as I need to in order to be able to accommodate someone else’s (a character’s) potential relationship with the space. (This is one reason why I think the catch-phrase advice to “write what you know” is in actuality laden with perils.)
The challenge with settings that aren’t integral to me is, well, that I don’t already know them like the back of my hand. So I have to research. And for that research to really count, I must be able to give all five senses the option of engagement. Which means visiting the setting.
For this new project, I’m debating between a setting that is already very familiar versus one that would be brand new. I’m wrestling with the pros and cons of each. But in order to make a fully informed decision, I think some location scouting is in my future. It means braving Orange County. Wish me luck.