Sixteen years after readers were introduced to the magical world of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke is to publish her second novel.
Out in September next year, Clarke’s Piranesi will follow the story of its eponymous hero, who lives in the House, a building with “hundreds if not thousands of rooms and corridors, imprisoning an ocean. A watery labyrinth.” Occasionally, he sees his friend, The Other, who is doing scientific research into “A Great and Secret Knowledge”.
I liked Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell along with a related ser of short stories. Now, finally, Clarke is releasing a new novel. But it’s a year away. How cruel. Get everyone excited and then make them wait.
She writes slower than Donna Tartt who’s released three novels since 1992. Both of them seem to be following the old-style approach to writing, taking a while to write each book rather than churning out Two or three novels a year like many novelists do these days.
These days, most people say they like character-driven novels. As Barbra Streisand sang years ago, “People who need people, Are the luckiest people in the world.” We want to read about people, pretend to be them, laugh at them, hate them, learn from them and, if nothing else, see what they’ll do next.
Nonetheless, location can make or break a novel. Picture this:
The Night Circus set in the day time or, worse yet, Dubuque.
The Prince of Tides without the tides or, worse yet, without the the lush bays and swamps an estuaries of the South Carolina coast. (“It was growing dark on this long southern evening, and suddenly, at the exact point her finger had indicated, the moon lifted a forehead of stunning gold above the horizon, lifted straight out of filigreed, light-intoxicated clouds that lay on the skyline in attendant veils.”)
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell set in modern times or, worse yet, within the 1950s neighborhood of Happy Days or the early 1960s city ambiance of American Graffiti. (“Where does the wind come from that blows upon your face, that fans the pages of your book? Where the harum-scarum magic of small wild creatures meets the magic of Man, where the language of the wind and the rain and the trees can be understood, there we will find the Raven King.”)
All the Pretty Horses moved from Texas onto a Star Wars planet or, worse yet, the Catskill Mountains.
Setting is more than a generic backdrop for the action
In his essay, “Setting as Character,” Crawford Kilian wrote, “Whether it’s Scott Fitzgerald’s 1920s Long Island or Tolkien’s Shire, the setting really is a kind of character in the story. Geographically and socially, the setting shapes the other characters, making some actions inevitable and others impossible.” The novels I listed above not only didn’t happen somewhere else, they couldn’t.
On a similar note, a recent post on ProActive Writer, explored the importance of settings with the idea that “ignoring setting, or even giving it only a passing consideration, will lead to an unconvincing story.” The post views setting as the framework or the skeleton that holds up your plot and characters. Some authors build worlds for their novels before writing the novels; others let the worlds evolve while they write their stories. Either way, the worlds—real or imagined—must be convincing, they must fit the story like a warm mitten on a winter evening.
My Location Settings
I say all this as a way of introducing a series of posts on my Sun Singer’s Travels blog about the location settings in my novels. These easy-to-read posts explain each setting, show or describe what happened there in the novel, and explain why I chose the setting.
My approach to settings is organic and intuitive. By that I mean that I don’t make fiction-class lists of the attributes of the settings I want to use. No literary theory here; just places and reasons why I liked them. So far, the series has three installments:
Future posts will look at the world of a city in the Midwest, an aircraft carrier, a bridge over a wild river, and a sailor town. Stop by and see what you think. Whether you agree or disagree with my rationale, perhaps these posts will help you choose the best possible settings for your short stories and novels.