In dreams at the backs of my eyelids, I was still twelve years old traveling in a car luminous with anger. I could feel the slow braking as we turned onto the county highway. I could see the horizon…
Growing up, I was always freezing cold. This is not a metaphor; I mean that I was almost never physically warm enough. When you spend your formative years in a place that sets snowfall records, you become accustomed to a certain ambient frigidity. Either it’s snowing, or you’re thinking about how glad you are that it’s not snowing.
This is the landscape I wanted to capture in my setting sketch, taken from my novel in progress about rural decay, American fundamentalism, and a boy who trails clouds of moths wherever he goes. It’s a numbing and isolating landscape, one that was designed to echo the protagonist’s existence in a loveless home and a strict religious society. It’s also a violent landscape, one whose blizzards I used to mirror the anger and unpredictability of the mother.
In The Art of Fiction, Jerome Stern writes: “Place situates the story in your reader’s mind. Fiction that seems to happen in no particular place often seems not to take place at all.” I would go one step further and say that characters who exist in no particular setting often seem not to be fully alive. Without a clearly delineated setting, characters can seem unmoored, floating in a kind of gray pickling solution of vagueness and never quite touching the walls of their jars.
Of course, people can also transcend the places where they live, and my main characters eventually do. Along the way, their understanding of the world is shaped by the places they visit: a collapsing barn, an unlicensed taxidermy workshop, a hidden house in the deep woods, and stretches of lonely back roads where they feel like they’re the only people alive.
But even after they leave their hometown, they remain marked by it, just as we remain indelibly marked by the places we inhabit in real life. Whether you’ve grown up collecting shells on the beach or refrigerating your milk in snowbanks during power outages, your sense of the world has been shaped by your surroundings. My best advice for crafting a memorable setting is to keep this fact at the front of your mind, to be sure your character clearly acts and is acted upon by the world you construct around them.
As climate change accelerates, it’s important that we render the relationships between people and place faithfully, with nuance and skill. I don’t know how to make the people in power prioritize the environment over the quote-unquote economy, and fiction often feels like a weak, lonely campfire in a comparatively enormous wasteland of government negligence and corporate destruction. Still, sometimes it’s the small moments of warmth and respite in the blizzard that help us make it through the winter.
GABRIELLE HOVENDON is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles. She received her MFA in creative writing from Bowling Green State University and her PhD in English literature from the University of Georgia. She’s currently at work on her novel in progress set in the North Country, as well as a hybrid poetry collection and a second novel about queer socialists in a stonecutting empire in nineteenth-century France. Her work has appeared in publications including Electric Literature, Verse, The Missouri Review, The Georgia Review, The Gettysburg Review, The Cincinnati Review, Redivider, Day One, and Ninth Letter. Find Gabrielle on Instagram @gabes_redacted.