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Exploring the art of fiction

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Mapping The Setting

We are often as familiar with the settings in our fiction as we are with our own homes and towns. We know in which drawer Ariel keeps her revolver; we know how how long it takes to get to the bodega; we know the sound of the train as it rolls by late at night. Sometimes, though, our knowledge of this place doesn’t make it into our fiction as clearly as it might.  Or, it could be that we haven’t thought through all the details as thoroughly as we should and inconsistencies arise.

Drawing a map for the setting in fiction can be exhilarating. First, it allows you to step away from the page. Second, it forces the place in your fiction to exist outside of your head. And finally, it allows you to see this place, your setting, in a wholly different light. It’s fun, too. Grab some colored pencils and some big sheets of paper and draw your fictional world.

For fiction that takes place in a fictional town or neighborhood, it can be so useful to draw a map of the town, so that you know where things are in relation to each other. Does the road between the two main characters’ houses pass through the woods? Is there an alley behind the pizza parlor? Where is the drugstore? Learning your way around the town or neighborhood in your fiction can help to deepen the sense of place, even if none of these details ever end up on the page.

Maps can be drawn for a space as small as a room. In a story I’m working on, three adult sisters convene in one of their bedrooms in the house they grew up in. I drew a map of the room because I was having difficulty seeing the space clearly. Once I did that, I began to realize how crowded it must have felt in that room compared to when the girls were little. The twin beds were only a foot apart. The room was dark, in the late afternoon, because it was facing east. And only then did I realize that the sisters needed to close the door so their mother couldn’t hear them talk because the room was directly above the kitchen. I might have figured some of this out eventually, but drawing the room and understanding its place in the house provided me with new insights.

 

Exercise

  • Take a short story or a novel that you love. Choose something to map out: a room, a house, a town. Look at the clues that the writer has given you as your starting points. Then think about what the writer has not given you but what you’ve filled in through your imagination. This is what you’re aiming for in your own work: to give the reader enough specificity that they fill in the gaps.
  • With a short story or novel in progress, chose a scene that takes place in one room. Draw that room. Put in all the furniture—whether it’s mentioned in the fiction or not. What color is the rug? Which direction are the windows facing? What rooms are leading into or out of this room? Now draw the smaller objects: what’s on that dining table? Whose sweater is that on the easy chair? Who left the milk out on the counter? It’s amazing how seeing the room in this way can open up possibilities in your fiction.

by Laura Spence-Ash