Monday, January 30, 2006

BJH: Desert Island Fiction

No, I'm not talking about beach books or that "one special book" you'd take with you to a desert island. I'm thinking here of novels that exclude the world outside the pale, novels with absolutely no sense of what's taking place in the culture in which they're set--and the effect this particular flaw can have on a story.

None of this applies to the short story, by the way, which by its nature is more a slice of life, a work that focuses on and to some degree examines under the fictive lens one or more characters in a particular setting. The short story isn't meant to be a microcosm of the novel.

As an example, let me use a book I read not too long ago. By not revealing the author's name or the title of the book, I feel free to use this particular novel as an example of what not to do. Incidentally, this isn't an isolated case, but something I see fairly often in both the general market and CBA as well, especially given some of today's hurried, sound-bite styles used in fiction. Although this particular story was clever, with writing that "crackled," interesting characters, and enough twists and turns in plot development to keep a reader turning the pages, it seemed to take place in a vacuum. No world seemed to exist beyond the periphery of the characters and their personal setting. In fact, had the author not given the date of the setting in the beginning, even the time frame would have been difficult to pinpoint (aside from some dated speech patterns and costuming). Consequently, throughout the reading of the book I was at least vaguely aware of something lacking, something that served to undermine the overall texture and foundation of the story.

I realize that some authors would plead "immediacy" as the motive for this type of writing, but immediacy has more to do with the closeness, the intimacy of the characters, than with the setting and the wider culture.

An opposite example to the above-mentioned book would be D. L. Doctorow's novel, The Waterworks. The author brought post-Civil War New York City to life in this historical novel without taking anything away from the mystery, the terror and darkness of the story. It could never have been the brilliant, atmospheric work of fiction it is had Doctorow not immersed us in its setting and its culture. Life as it was in the city and in the times pulsated with authenticity and realism. So deeply entrenched was I in the story that ending a chapter and returning to my living room in the present century was almost a shock.

To completely ignore the world at large in a novel is what I mean by "desert island fiction," because that's how the story "feels"--as if the events are taking place on an isolated piece of land surrounded by nothing but water. It exists within a black hole, and so there's nothing to help the reader experience the story in a world any wider than the stage upon which that story is set.

Granted, not every novel demands an intricately developed broader culture. In the series I'm working on now all the stories take place in an isolated community, a small coal mining town. To have given these stories a more detailed and broader expansion of history and culture would have weakened the focus, the ambience and tone that I felt was crucial to the books. Even so, I sensed the need to provide at least a faint sense of period and some integration with the mountain culture and differing backgrounds of the characters.

In both my Emerald Ballad and American Anthem series, however, I needed to develop a much more detailed, extensive historical and cultural landscape for the stories. These were larger books with more characters--many of whom were immigrants--as well as a variety of settings, specific historical events, the ongoing Irish and Irish American struggles, vastly different societies, the music culture of the times, and more. These were stories that could be told only by using extensive "world building." In my novel, Cloth of Heaven and its sequel, Ashes and Lace, one of the plot lines was set in the Claddagh in western Ireland. This involved a culture that no longer exists, but I felt it imperative to bring it to life for these two books, because this was the locale of two primary characters. I discovered that developing the physical place wasn't enough; I also needed to paint as clearly as possible the remote and primitive culture so completely foreign to most readers. Without that, the characters would have merely acted out against a colorless backdrop.

That's my point: we do as much as we need to do, whether we're writing historical or contemporary fiction, to avoid the desert island syndrome in our novels. We have to learn to sense which stories require the most layered, detailed depictions of setting and culture and others that might actually suffer from too much. Otherwise, no matter how appealing our characters are or how gripping and breathtaking the plot may be, our readers will still be aware, on some level, that there's "something missing."

And sometimes that's the very thing that will cause readers to go missing.

BJ Hoff is the author of the recently released A Distant Music, The American Anthem series, and An Emerald Ballad.


At 11:44 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear BJ,

Thanks for your blog post this AM. I'm working on an historical, and the world-building aspect is one of my favorite (and most frustrating!) parts of writing. The on-going research required is sometimes staggering, so it's a good thing I love what I'm doing. I chose not to set my story against a major historical event, so pulling in those anchoring threads is a little trickier, but along the way I've discovered small events for that particular year (an outbreak of yellow fever, a revolutionary invention) that would reasonably effect my characters, and have pulled them in to become the motives for a few turns of plot.

I'm glad you brought up this subject. It's near and dear to my heart as a writer, but also as a reader. The kinds of books you mention here, especially historicals, are those for which I'm always greedy to read.

Another writer who did this sort of world building wonderfully was Ellis Peters (Edith Pargeter), in her Brother Cadfael medieval mysteries--my all time favorite series.


At 11:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I chose not to set my story against a major historical event, so pulling in those anchoring threads is a little trickier, but along the way I've discovered small events for that particular year (an outbreak of yellow fever, a revolutionary invention) that would reasonably effect my characters, and have pulled them in to become the motives for a few turns of plot."

You're obviously on the same page as what I'm writing about here, Lori. You're digging out the stones, whether large or small, that will help to build your world.


At 4:56 PM, Blogger Camy Tang said...

Great post! Thanks, BJ. I'm in the early stages of my novel and this is an issue I hadn't even considered yet.


At 6:15 PM, Blogger Kristy Dykes said...

Thanks for the reminder. I appreciate all you had to say.

Kristy, who's going to go analyze some novels and compare them to hers, and then make NEEDED additions


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