Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Writing Setting with Attitude

Just downriver of the French Quarter, past Frenchmen Street and the Faubourg Marigny, there's a neighborhood called Bywater. It's funky without trying to be (although some of the so-called gutter-punk kids seem to be trying a little too hard), home of Krewe du Vieux and Mardi Gras Zone and the Habitat for Humanity Re-Store.

It's a neighborhood where you won't find a lot of chain restaurants (capt. sal's seafood doesn't count), or trendy businesses. Which reminds me of a story one of my friends once told me. He's been doing location scouting here for years now, and a year or so ago he met a guy who bought an old building on Saint Claude Avenue, which basically separates Bywater from the Upper Ninth Ward. The guy later found a Starbucks sign, and, as a joke, put it up outside his building with a Coming Soon notice.

He expected people would get excited about a new Starbucks (i think there are two in town, excluding hotels), but that's not what happened. Within days, the sign became defaced, scribbled on, graffitied. I think someone may have smeared some sort of excrement (human, animal, who knows?) on the sign.

The citizens of Bywater (okay, probably mostly the gutter-punk kids who are too cool to bathe or use deodorant) had spoken. Faced with the threat of a Starbucks invading the neighborhood, the neighborhood fought back. Luckily for Starbucks, they never knew a thing about this mutiny.

For me, this knowledge turned into a writing lesson (doesn't it always?) about how setting is more that just the sight of the old buildings, the smell of the river, the hot breeze whipping through the crape myrtles, it's the sound of car horns and profanity, and tags spray-painted on the crumbling brick walls. The gum on the sidewalk and the cigarette butts smoking in the gutter. It's about the people as much as it's about the place.

It can be easy to treat setting and people as two distinct entities, two different parts of storytelling, but the setting has just as much effect on people as people affect the places they inhabit, whether town, city, or alone in a big scary house (anyone else watching american horror story?).

How do people interact with setting where you live? Do you use this as inspiration in your writing?


Cynthia Lee said...

Ha! I love that about the Starbucks sign.

I love American Horror Story. Jessica Lange is my favorite character. :)

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Wow. What a powerful story and writing lesson, Tere. LOVE this post! :-)

Abby Annis said...

Great post, Tere! Setting always comes last in my stories. Need to work on that. Lucky for me, I have your awesome example to follow. :)

I don't know how the people interact with the setting here. Other than being annoyed with how SLOW everyone drives, I don't really pay attention. Guess I need to be less of a hermit.

And yes, we've been watching American Horror Story. Still not sure whether I like it or not. BTW, are you all caught up on SOA yet? Serious stuff is happening! I need to discuss! ;)

Krispy said...

Great post, and lol at the Starbucks sign. Berkeley was pretty hostile to big chains trying to get into the area around the university. I realized this when I found out the only Starbucks nearby was a 20-30 minute cross-campus walk from where I lived. Luckily, I fell in love with the coffee at a local cafe only 5-10 minutes away.

Is American Horror Story getting better? I watched the first episode and found it creepy but overly confusing. It's kept me from watching more, despite my curiosity about the house.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

I remember the first time I noticed a Starbucks every two blocks. So I understand the reaction in that neighborhood but too bad they didn't get the joke, because that is incredibly funny.

I love your observation that setting needs the people, too. I was walking down a Venice street (with its share of seedy) and noticed, by smell first, a young, unwashed man in front of me. What stood out was the dress tie hanging from his backpack. I kept trying to figure out if he actually ever wore it.

MG Higgins said...

Wonderful, insightful post. Our town has successfully campaigned to keep out WalMart for years. Emotions--including pride--are so tightly connected to a sense of place.

Julie Dao said...

Great story, and such a great lesson you pulled from it, too. To me, a place is really defined by the people who live there.

Sarah Allen said...

You make me jealous of living in New Orleans. One of my bucket list goals is to visit and eat a big plate of beignets.

Sarah Allen
(my creative writing blog)

Missed Periods said...

That's a good point, and thinking about it, I realize that the authors of many of my favorite books have made that connection.

Sara McClung said...

I LOVE American Horror story! And the WIP I'm working on now is the first one I've written in which the setting, and the way characters behave around/react to it is almost like a character in itself. I *should* have made that so with my first WIP, because it would have made the story so. much. better. Maybe someday I'll go back...