When I read Conrad Wesselhoeft’s DIRT BIKES, DRONES AND OTHER WAYS TO FLY – if you haven’t read it, do it NOW – I had to know how my friend, fellow author, and Seattle dweller was able to pull off a New Mexico setting so spectacular, I felt like I was riding on the back of his bike racing over those dusty trails. So I asked. His answer inspired me and taught me a great lesson on what makes a setting work. It’s sure to inspire you. Thank you, Conrad! Got an extra helmet? Let’s go for a ride.
In Praise of Place: Why fiction writers should light out for personal territory
In my mid-twenties, I fell in love with northeast New Mexico—the high plains, broken mesas, torn shadows, and rich, drifting light. I lived for two years in the town of Raton, working as a journalist for the local newspaper.
Working for a small-town paper meant doing every job in the newsroom: writing and editing stories; laying out the paper on a composing table; and taking and developing photos.
I took thousands of photos, criss-crossing the county with my sturdy Pentax K1000 camera—later moving on to a more nimble Canon AE-1.
The vistas of northeast New Mexico enthralled me. Much of the time, they looked flat and dull, but at certain times of day, under certain light, they exploded with beauty.
I’d reach for my camera, and all would go quiet.
Several years ago, when I started writing my young-adult novel Dirt Bikes, Drones, and Other Ways to Fly, I wanted to re-capture that special landscape—both the look and feel.
I started by creating a fictional town and calling it Clay Allison, after the 19th Century gunfighter who had lived in that area. I jotted these notes:
“Clay Allison is a town in northeast New Mexico located in the high desert snug up against Colorado’s mountainous ass. ‘Clay’ has a rusty, shoddy, past-its-prime look and feel. In reality, it has never experienced a prime.”
The surrounding landscape, I noted, “is a hundred muted shades. Nearby are Eagle Tail and Burro mesas, and to the north, the Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) Mountains. Many small mesas are carved with dirt-bike tracks, an insult to Mother Nature, but a playground for Arlo Santiago and his friends.”
Arlo is the novel’s 17-year-old adrenaline-junkie narrator. He loves to blast across the mesas on his Yamaha 250 dirt bike, hitting the bumps and flying high.
I stretched my vocabulary when I wrote:
“The story unfolds under the cerulean emptiness of New Mexico’s slow-fuse sky.”
My goal was to have Arlo fit organically into this landscape. I wanted him to respond—consciously and otherwise—to the monotonous-one-minute, staggering-the-next horizons, just as I had. If he could do this, then maybe readers could, too. That was my hope anyway.
Whether I pulled it off is not for me to say. What I did learn, however, is how important setting can be to a story—so important, in fact, that it can become a galvanizing character in its own right, one filled with moods and fancies, passions and mysteries.
Writers often overlook setting in favor of more obvious characterization tools— for example, action or dialogue.
The result is that New York City appears no different in the mind’s eye than Portland, Oregon, and the Grand Canyon exudes all the gravitas of a touched-up postcard. Hasty writers like to locate Denver in the Rocky Mountains when, in fact, “the Queen City of the Plains” is located just east of the Rockies.
It’s as if the writer had carelessly stuck a pin on a map and said, “I think I’ll set my story here.”
But when setting works—when a writer taps into emotions associated with a place—it can be glorious, as in Huckleberry Finn (the Mississippi River), The Old Man and the Sea (the Caribbean), or To Kill a Mockingbird (small-town Alabama).
It’s no coincidence that Twain, Hemingway, and Harper Lee lived and worked where they set their stories, or that they acquired far more than an eyeful of land or water. By the time they embarked on writing their novels, they had mingled their souls with those places.
And therein lies the beauty of “place” or “setting” in fiction.
When a writer dips into his or her own life and bares emotions connected with a place the result can exalt a story and illuminate the characters.
Scott O’Dell’s love for California’s coastal islands shimmers on every page of Island of the Blue Dolphins, his 1960 young-adult novel about a girl left on a remote island to fend for herself. You more than hear the gulls cry, waves crash, and wind blow. The island on which Karana lives seems alive. You hear it mourn for all that is missing from her life, just as it rejoices in her victories over storms, hunger, and wild dogs.
Lois Lowry’s ambivalent memories of growing up on military bases darken the stark, regimented world of her 1993 dystopian novel The Giver.
C.S. Lewis based his sweeping Narnia vistas on the Mountains of Mourne in Northern Ireland. About them, he wrote: “I have seen landscapes . . . which, under a particular light, make me feel that at any moment a giant might raise his head over the next ridge.”
In every case the writer traversed a personal geography to inform a fictional one. His or her emotional connection to a real place grounded the reader in an imagined place.
Contemporary young-adult fiction writers traversing this personal geography include Molly Blaisdell, whose Plumb Crazy makes small-town Texas taste like a sweet-potato pie glazed with dust and peppered with grit; Louise Spiegler, whose historical novels capture the damp majesty of Puget Sound country; and Holly Cupala, whose Don’t Breathe a Word gives the midnight alleys of homeless America a heartbeat.
When a writer soaks up the spirit of a place—whether it’s a town, city, mesa, or just about anywhere else—that place can inspire a profound fictional setting.
A great story puts you there, so that you see and feel the landscape around you. Writers get there by digging into their personal geography—and listening for the heartbeat.
Conrad Wesselhoeft worked as a tugboat hand in Singapore and Peace Corps Volunteer in Polynesia before embarking on a career in journalism. He has served on the editorial staffs of five newspapers, including The New York Times. He is the author of the young adult novels ADIOS, NIRVANA (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010) and DIRT BIKES, DRONES, AND OTHER WAYS TO FLY (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014). His ancestors were doctors to Emily Dickinson, Louisa May Alcott, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. His three children are in various stages of university study or job searching. He lives in West Seattle with a poodle named Django (the “D” is silent). Druid Circle cookies (from Trader Joe’s) are his weakness.