The 4 W’s: Where

Note — hmm, just got an idea to make this a (sorta) series.  The Who, What, Where and Why of a story…I’ll have to think about that one a bit, but I kinda like the idea.

I finished writing at the brewery the other day, then got into a conversation with some of the regulars. Now, these regulars are people I have known for a long time. They know me pretty well, and they have no hesitation about asking questions. Sometimes they ask a lot of questions.

Now, usually, those questions are pretty funny…but sometimes they actually get into more serious, substantive areas. Like whether Cascade hops are evil, or debating the relative merits of malty versus hoppy pilsners…

You know, the important stuff.

Oh yeah…and sometimes writing comes up, too.

Keep in mind: these are the people who got me to admit that my characters talk to me. As you might imagine, that particular little nugget still gets a ton of mileage in the taproom…

Well, the other day, one of those friends asked me about settings. “You make shit up, right?” he asked.

“Well…uhh…basically…” I stammered, still coming back to earth after a writing session.

“Where the fuck’s it come from? The weird sci-fi shit, I mean. The places, the atmosphere.”

Good question, that.

John Scalzi still has my favorite sci-fi quote of all time, and it fits for this topic just as it does for so many others {I’m paraphrasing from memory, mind you}: “They say you should write what you know. I write what no one knows.”

So…settings. My writing tends to be very visual, tends to focus on the immediate snapshot of a place. More than that, the look & feel of a place tend to focus very much on the contrast* inherent in the setting: the contrast of light and dark especially, but also those social and economic and personal contrasts that mean so much to my writing. I love dissonance in my settings just as much as in my characters…

*Remember, one of my “outside” loves is photography…mostly travel and nature stuff, but I will tackle almost any topic through a camera. When I take pictures, I intentionally look for the contrast in light & shadow…and also in subject matter. Those impulses, and that “eye” I use, affects my imagination and my writing a great deal.

The biggest settings are obviously made up out of whole cloth: from settled planets to FTL starships to massive space stations. These are the “big ideas”, the conceptual frameworks that hold together the “real” places where scenes actually take place (a room, a bar, a plaza, etc…). These “big things” are influenced by reality, but mostly just in terms of the feelings I want them to evoke:

Dockside was inspired/influenced by places like Marseille and Long Beach and Boston. Working ports with gritty, dangerous areas close beside areas of wealth and privilege.

The destroyer that is the centerpiece of an old “trunk novel” of mine (that may see the light of day in a completely re-worked fashion) was inspired/influenced by the old WW2 Fletcher-class destroyers…and by modern US nuclear subs.

But those are the “big things”, those are not the things of everyday settings and scenes…the places that help define the feeling of a story.

The smaller and more intimate places where the scenes take place, the “real” settings…well, they are based on places I know, on places & things that have had a very real affect on me.

Dockside’s res-holds are those tight, crowded, loud neighborhoods you see in Hong Kong and Manila and Bangkok and other massive Asian cities. But, and this is a big but, they also have a huge dose of the crowding and crime, and the grinding poverty, of the Brazilian favelas, as well as the southern European migrant “camps”.

A handful of scenes I am currently writing are set in one of the grimmest and most depressing places I can come up with: a place based on the old Soviet-era, Stalinist apartment blocks you can still find in central and eastern Europe’s old industrial areas. I once took a walk through one of these behemoths just a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall…and, well, holy shit. Let’s just say, to a kid who grew up in Southern California, there was no place more alien…nor more unsettling.

From small, crowded izakaya in Tokyo, to beach front clubs in Spain…

From huge, luxurious mansions to tiny, filthy apartments that aspire to be called “slums”…

From corporate boardrooms to back-alley drug dens…

Pretty much every setting I create has at least an inspiration, if not a very real basis, in real world places I have experienced. And that experience, that reality, is important to me: every setting I use is intended to evoke certain emotions, and to communicate certain things about the characters, and the particular plot points, involved in that scene.

I could never hope to communicate the emotion of an overwhelming, monolithic concrete apartment block — and it’s depressing central expanse of a concrete courtyard — had I never stood in the middle of just such a place and experienced its reality.

All that being said…my friend was right: I make shit up. I make a lot of shit up. But — and this is the important but — even the stuff I make up is built around certain nuggets of reality. Every place, every setting, that I use has to have a feeling to it — has to have an honesty — in order to support and serve the tone of the scene itself.

And, yes, before you ask: the taproom at “my” brewery has made its own appearance…

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