A good friend, being complimentary of my writing, once said, “In your stories I always know where the ceiling is.” We were discussing settings and descriptions of place in the books we loved, and she meant (and I agree) that in my stuff, a firm grounding in the physical surroundings is essential. I’ve said it before on this blog (probably dozens of times now, in various ways), but I am truly a writer of place.
Almost invariably, my story ideas start with places I’ve been to . . . or places I’ve read about . . . or places I imagine. I’m often inspired by pictures — ones seen recently or remembered from childhood — photos, illustrations in books. Some settings just beg to have stories to take place in them.
I frequently linger and gaze into some lonely ditch where water gurgles from a culvert as if from the mouth of a cave — or where weeds stand thick in the tepid mire, a jungle in miniature laid out there just beside some ordinary road. I stop in mid-stride to peer into a thicket on the university campus (Niigata’s is wilder and woodier than most). The shade is deep under certain trees, with light shimmering somewhere beyond, as if somewhere among the tangles, a door into Faery has been left standing ajar. I know I’ve written before of the staggered line of potted pine trees on the traditional Japanese Noh stage — the differences in distance from the viewer meant to suggest passage into another world. These trees border the covered walkway by which certain characters enter and exit. If a ghost passes the trees, it is coming into this world from the realm of spirits. And that leads me to think about how so many writers throughout history have made use of forests as the avenues of passage into a supernatural dimension. Shakespeare, Hawthorne . . . I’m sure you can come up with a better list than I can.
And for what forests can’t handle, we’ve got caverns! And then there are rivers, the sea, and mountains. Do you follow me? My point is that, with the natural world on his/her palette, the painter of fantasy can do anything!
But coming back to “I always know where the ceiling is”: it’s not enough simply to evoke a setting and tip the hat to it only occasionally. I believe it has to be an inseparable part of the story’s fabric. The setting is always there from beginning to end, influencing — often determining — the things that happen. We can’t forget it any more than we can deny the real spaces we occupy in our lives. Oh, we can get lost in conversations or ideas, for sure, and that’s good to do. A story isn’t a real estate brochure, and if you stop with the setting alone, you don’t have a story yet. But if we forget where the ceiling is, we’ll bump our heads sooner or later. And we daren’t forget the yawning stairway.
Whoever does not fully appreciate the crucial importance of setting to story would do well to read Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows” and “The Wendigo,” or most of Lovecraft’s stories, or watch Lawrence of Arabia or Field of Dreams. . . . Again, I’m sure you can make a more intelligent list than I can.
What I find quite often is that a vital consciousness of the setting helps to generate story ideas every bit as much as the actions and personalities of characters do. Having a map — and thinking about all that it was telling me — helped me immensely with the writing of Agondria. So did having my cousin’s graphite sketches, which spoke volumes about the characters’ surroundings.
I recently came up with this advice when another good friend and I were talking about writer’s block: I’m sure this isn’t original with me, but I suggested gathering some pictures that the writer found intriguing or inspirational — magazine photos, pictures from the Internet, whatever — and pretending that they were illustrations for the story under construction. There’s something delightfully satisfying about such a technique, isn’t there? It’s like making a mold of some object, then pouring some substance into the mold, then breaking the mold when the substance has hardened. We’ve made use of the intermediary vehicle — the visual images — to create something else, something of our own.
During the year that “The Star Shard” was being serialized in Cricket, I had the delightful privilege of answering questions from young readers on the magazine’s website; and a good many readers of Cricket are themselves aspiring writers. One question I was asked over and over again was, “How do you keep a story going? How do you know what to write once you’ve started?” My advice is that a stalled story can quite often become unstalled by the writer’s imagining him/herself to be in the story, a part of that described world. Look around, and pay careful attention to the details. Chances are good that, within minutes, you’ll know what has to happen next for your characters — and what has to happen after that, and after that. . . . I’ve noticed that, at times when the writing is going badly or I don’t know where the story should go next, it’s quite often because I’ve lost a sense of being in the setting — I’ve begun writing from some outside point. If the story becomes an abstraction, it suffers — at least in my writing.
“Where the ceiling is” makes me think of two other titles that put “Where” to good use: Where the Wild Things Are, which I’m planning to go see about 90 minutes from now. (It was one of my mom’s pet peeves when she’d ask schoolkids if they knew [she'd say the title of some wonderful book], and the kids would say, “Oh, yeah! I saw that!” — It bothered Mom that they knew the story only from its movie or TV incarnation, and had no idea that it was a book at all. Of course she didn’t take her irk out on the kids, but you can be sure she made them aware.)
For the record, I have read Where the Wild Things Are, so I’m allowed to see the movie. Yes, I’ve read the whole book! Yes, cover to cover. More than once!
And the other “Where” is Where the Sidewalk Ends, by Shel Silverstein. Isn’t that a perfect title for a book of fanciful poems for children? That title alone should win prizes. It evokes the little grassy areas where kids play, where order and adult-determined pathways end. We all have such places somewhere near our homes when we’re kids — those pebble-strewn verges where dreams begin. The ground is always uneven there, isn’t it? It’s never level, and the grass doesn’t grow uniformly. There are taller clumps, there are old stumps, there are places worn bald by stones or by our feet, there are squishy places when it rains, and there are bright places that the sun bakes. I remember coming upon one such place in Niigata years ago, when a friend and I were making a bicycle odyssey to follow the entire perimeter of what’s called “Niigata Island” in a complete circle, heedless of typical routes. There was a place, on a windy ridge facing the sea, where the paved sidewalk just . . . stopped. The wind blew, and the grass riffled, and the sun sparkled on the waves — and there was simply no more pavement. It was pretty cool, and I thought at once of Shel Silverstein.
In all this issue of settings, I was thinking again of The Lord of the Rings. (How often our discussions of great stories lead us back there!) It’s been said by more than one scholar that The Lord of the Rings isn’t primarily a character story; it isn’t even really a plot story at heart. It’s a milieu story, and that means that we re-read and re-read it because what we love is Middle-earth. We want to go again to those wonderful places and hear the poetry and steep ourselves in the legends and histories and interconnectedness of it all. Tolkien knew where his ceilings were . . . and where the mountains were . . . and what was beyond them . . . and what the other names for everything were . . . and why. . . .
And I’ll go you one step further. (Is that even a legitimate expression?!) Much of what we’re enjoying in Tolkien’s settings isn’t something fantastic, exotic, or overtly magical. It’s an echoing stone chasm, a mighty waterfall, a mountain range, light slanting through quiet forest spaces, or landscapes rolling away under shifting clouds. Tolkien recognized that what is most numinous about the world is right here in our own world, and he knew it intimately. Tolkien, too, was a gazer-into-woody-corners. (I wonder if the Oxford of his day had any brushy nooks between buildings?) The story is told of how, when Tolkien and C.S. Lewis would take walks in the countryside together, Lewis preferred to stride along at a good clip, but he was forever having to stop and wait as Tolkien gawked at a tree or crouched to study some leafy shoot or patch of moss.
I’m going to quote here from Ted Nasmith, in his remarks prefacing this year’s extraordinary Tolkien calendar, which Nasmith illustrated:
“Other authors have well-developed descriptions of the lands their characters move through, both real and invented worlds alike, but somehow the combination of Faerie Tale structure wedded to a distinct delight in the minutiae and moods of nature has raised Tolkien’s sub-creation to a level few authors achieve. Some have even commented that Tolkien’s landscape constitutes a character of sorts, and this may be partly due to the tendency of the author — in fine faerie tradition — to blur the lines between his characters and creatures and their environment. . . .
“Clearly nature and animals interact with ‘people’ repeatedly as a central motif in Tolkien’s invented world, and since nature has long been a universal source of artistic and creative inspiration, visual artwork inspired by Tolkien’s works would not be satisfactory without making sure that illustrations also integrate the characters with the settings.”
What other writers do this well? This would be a good time to tell us, dear readers, about the authors and books you love. What are some other tales in which you always know where the ceilings are? Examples are quite welcome, too!