In keeping with the mission of Mason’s Road to be a “teaching and learning” journal, we devote this section to a discussion on craft through the use of Craft Essays – a key component of our curriculum in Fairfield’s MFA in Creative Writing program. Our hope is that this section will serve as a place for conversations about the craft of writing — what makes a piece succeed or not; how one author achieves a certain effect in comparison to the way another author might; the issues we encounter in our own work. We believe there are many lessons in the works we’ve read, and much we can teach one another by participating in an open forum.
To initiate discussion, we have excerpted a few passages from the craft essays of our Fairfield University MFA students. If you are an MFA student in any program across the country, we welcome your submissions too – any analytical work that addresses the writing elements of “Setting” or “Voice,” our themes to date. You may submit your craft essays to firstname.lastname@example.org; they will be reviewed by us through a blind submissions process and posted here if selected.
Since the theme for this second issue is Setting, we offer the following contributions from two of our fiction writers, Jeanne DeLarm-Neri and Jean Medeiros, who wrote on this theme by analyzing Howard Norman’s The Bird Artist and Richard Russo’s That Old Cape Magic, respectively. We like how DeLarm-Neri points out Norman’s use of setting to give the reader a window into the mind of his protagonist, and the way Medeiros observes how Russo’s personal familiarity with the setting of his novel allows for heightened insights into it.
Witless Bay: Certainly an ironic name, as Fabian sees a great deal of intelligence in the town, as sharp and cold as the rocks. Author Howard Norman counterpoints staccato sounds — “stilt houses on shelves of rock”—to descriptions of the cold environment — “ice-fishing shanties lined up off-season.” Even in summer, the cold is never far from anyone’s mind. Fabian’s town consists of bleak “cold storage shacks dug into hillsides” and includes a structure he calls “the seine gallows.” Even so, he states his love for the setting by describing the lighthouse, which “loomed…with a splendid jurisdiction,” with awe and respect. His father may look down on this place as “witless,” but Fabian does not consider that to be an insult. The birds are witless, as well, and they are beloved.
Contrast this with Norman’s treatment of the setting in Halifax — the “big city,” where his father arranges him to be married, sight unseen. The first paragraph of the chapter “My Marriage” opens on the Halifax harbor and its “air of activity”: “pushcarts rattling”; “gulls darting…for a fishhead”; “the ascending levels of commercial buildings.” In an effective last line to the paragraph, Fabian says, “We stood next to our suitcases”; Norman gives the impression that they need to cling to their own psychic turf. The rush of the action makes one as dizzy as Fabian with the immediacy of the upcoming wedding ceremony.
In Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, Janet Burroway likens the writer’s task in creating setting to that in developing character: “As with character, the first requisite of effective setting is to know it fully, to experience it mentally, and the second is to create it through significant detail.”
Richard Russo fully knows the Cape Cod of his novel That Old Cape Magic. He frequently references locales such as Back Bay, Sagamore Bridge, and the Cape Cod Canal, and even uses the colloquialism “on the Cape,” a sure indicator of the author’s long-time residence in New England.
But it’s when Russo experiences his setting mentally that a sense of place really shines:
“Coastal Maine, by contrast, seemed not just real but battered by reality. Where Cape Cod somehow managed to give the impression that July lasted all year, Maine reminded you, even in lush late spring, of its long, harsh winters, of snowdrifts that rotted baseboards and splintered latticework, of relentless winds that howled in the eaves and scoured the paint, leaving gutters rusted white with salt.”
This passage fulfills Burroway’s second requisite of creating effective setting through significant detail as well. By focusing on the specifics of place, Russo’s setting itself becomes a character.
Share your thoughts on the above excerpts in the Comments section below. What settings in other works have created lasting impressions on you? How have your own experiences shaped settings in your own writing? In what other ways can setting inform character? In what other ways can setting actually become a character?
We look forward to your reflections.
Brian Hoover and Dennis Quinn