Wednesday, March 13, 2013

A MUSE OF FIRE: All The World’s A Stage – Setting & Description

. . . And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.
Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
Whose high upreared and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder:
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;
Into a thousand parts divide on man,
And make imaginary puissance;
Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i' the receiving earth;
For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there; jumping o'er times,
Turning the accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass . . .
(Excerpt, Act I Prologue, Henry V, by William Shakespeare)

In theatre, a play’s author gives bare setting descriptions. Then the director and set designer work together to create the living set on which the play will be enacted. Whether it includes a falling chandelier, rotating sets and waterfalls or a spare, single room presentation, it takes an entire team to create the effective setting so the audience can see the visual rendering of the world of the play’s creator.
As writers of fiction, there is a good side, and a bad side, to our job as the sole designer of setting and our use of description. The upside: Our readers will imagine, based on our words, the place, and the setting that fits perfectly for them within the context of the story. No risk of disappointment as happens in theatre, or film, where the end result does not match the visual the readers had already created from the books. But the same plus, is also the downside. Because YOU are the sole creator of the setting. If you skimp on it, or if your description fails to captivate and conjure a sense of place for your story – then there’s no THERE there for your audience: The Reader.

Shakespeare gave his audience tremendous setting and atmosphere hints via his chorus speeches and prologues (such as I opened this piece with). His words allowed his audiences to fill in the blanks and augment the stage set with the grand world and events amid which his plays were to transpire.

He utilizes dialogue, as well, to enhance the sense of time and place, as in the first words of King Lear in Act III, Scene II, as he enters with the Fool in the midst of a storm:

“Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!
Crack nature’s moulds, all germens spill at once
That make ingrateful man!”

You have the opportunity to do this task utilizing both narrative as well as characters’ own description in thought or dialogue.

But how many elements go into crafting an effective setting?

Some major ones would be time, place, era, season, weather, temperature. What are they and how are you conveying this information? What impact or effect do these elements have on the narrative/action? Is it backdrop? Does it enhance the mood? Is it part of the challenge to the characters in the context of forward action?

Then there are the subtleties that more specific description adds to your setting. Like a set designer your eye must fall on every single nook and cranny of your setting. Then decide what is vital, and what is unimportant for your scenic design and what details would be innocuous, and can be ignored. How does describing the important elements help make your setting richer, bolder and more conducive to drawing your reader into your world – so that it runs like a film in their head as they read.

Take for example a set piece – a clock, which can be utilized both as a set design element and as a detail to help establish time frame, perhaps, or passage of time, as it ticks away the minutes. How can this element be adding to your atmosphere. Does it toll the ominous passing of time as the heroine desperately attempts to escape her bonds and flee the killer coming for her? Does it register the mounting excitement as a bride awaits her bridegroom on their honeymoon night? The frustration of a woman awaiting her lover who is late, or the trepidation of a character awaiting news of a job interview, the angst of a parent awaiting word on a sick child? Or does it notch up the erotic tension as a man watches his lover coming towards him to begin their tryst?

From ensuring that your description is specific: Is your heroine’s hair blown by a wind? Or is it a zephyr, a gale, an icy gust? Here’s where your word selection will come into play, and remember that action words convey more than non-action descriptors, details that bring to mind sense responses – especially touch and smell – can ramp up the depth of your setting. When elaborating on your setting include specific details that help anchor the time and place in your readers’ minds. Not just a city – is the city more like New York? Or Paris? Moscow, Shanghai or Casablanca? Kalamazoo or Kingston? Does the character live in a house surrounded by a garden? Or by a wild cacophony of wildflowers, daisies with bright faces, and nodding sunflowers? Is the smell permeating the room simply “food cooking”? OR is it the smell of old bacon grease and stale coffee, the pungent aroma of garlic and herbs, or the homey scent of meatloaf and cornbread? Is it raining? Or is it a typhoon, a sun shower, a nourishing spring rain, or a thundering downpour? Is the house just a house? Or a hobbit hole? A magical Weasley oddity or a dreary Kansas farmhouse?

What tiny elements can add atmosphere and mood to a set? What can help convey the tone and emotion of the characters in a given situation? What aspects of your setting and description round out and complete the world your characters inhabit so that – whether the setting is a space ship headed for Alpha Centauri in the year 2525, a Scottish castle in the highlands, or an upper West Side Manhattan one-bedroom apartment – it is a rich, vital, immediate and REAL world for your readers?

Like a combination playwright/set designer/director you must use all of your skills to build a perfect world – setting – and illuminate the place in which your novel’s action proceeds. From first page to last, in every chapter, scene, paragraph – your descriptive detail of the surroundings must be gripping, evocative, enlightening, compelling and they must sweep your reader away into a world so real that there IS a THERE there!

P.S: For some additional plays where marvelous “worlds” are created, try “The Iceman Cometh” by Eugene O’Neill, “The Hot L Baltimore” by Lanford Wilson, Sam Shepard’s “True West”, “Bus Stop” by William Inge, “Ghosts” by Henrik Ibsen, “Steel Magnolias” by Robert Harding or “The Skin of Our Teeth” by Thornton Wilder.

And for incredible setting and descriptive detail – within a story that runs from modern-day London, to the English countryside, as well as back into Victorian England and Italy, there is no more wonderful novel I have ever read than A. S. Byatt’s Booker Prize winning Possession. It is like a wonderful creative writing class all by itself!

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull'd in these flowers with dances and delight;

Oberon, Act II, Sc. I “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”
William Shakespeare

Wednesday, March 6, 2013


By Lise Horton

The series of World War II women’s fiction novels I continue to work on have fostered an even deeper appreciation of the era than I already had. As the niece of a Marine medic who landed on Iwo Jima, the great niece of an aunt who served as a nurse in Africa, and as the daughter of a woman who well remembers the home front life of Victory Gardens, food and gas rationing, black outs and civil patrols, it is not a time in our history very far removed from me (having been born in 1955 – a scant 10 years after VJ Day). First hand recollections instilled a feverish desire to know everything I can about the time, the world, how it began, how we rallied, and how the events changed us.

Since I’ve become a writer, it is not surprising that I gravitated to the period. When contemplating my series of novels, I decided that each book would have as its protagonist/heroine, a woman fulfilling a role that women took on in real life. I came to this decision for a specific reason. All through my life, reading WWII histories, I was continually frustrated by the lack of information on women. A mention here or there, very briefly, of nurses, and occasional references to women in the USO. Aside from the Rosie the Riveter coverage, presented mostly as novelty to break up the important stuff, the most frequent mention of women in wartime was coverage of prostitution.

I started searching because one day my Mother mentioned that her chemistry professor at Skidmore in the early 1950’s had been a chemist working on the atomic bomb at the Los Alamos location of the Manhattan Project – along with some of the most famous scientists in the world. That got me determined to find out more about the other women involved.

Mom also regaled me with stories about her youth during the war. She and my grandparents had a hefty Victory garden and we still have a ration book that my grandmother used. My grandfather was a foreman in the Scranton coal mines and, as such, got additional gas rations because he was employed in the war effort. Neighbors volunteered to be members of the civil patrols. All the kids participated in gathering tin, rubber and the ladies donated silk for parachutes, doing without stockings for the duration so that paratroopers and flight crews could be saved. Women at home scrimped, saved, sacrificed and sent care packages that kept their men in touch with home and what – and who – they were fighting for. No matter who they were, the folks at home did their part and have wonderful stories to be told.

Then I read a book by Janet Dailey, Silver Wings and Santiago Blue, which was a novel about the Women Airforce Service Pilots – the WASPS – who’d taken on the daunting task of plane ferry duty, anti-aircraft gunnery target towing, and the sometimes deadly job of test pilots for the various new aircraft being rolled out to beat the Germans and Japanese in the air wars above Europe and the Pacific. Investigating a bit I discovered a wealth of information.

Reading a biography of Ernest Hemingway, I encountered Martha Gelhorn, one of his wives who reported from many locales, including the front lines, during WWII. This discovery led me to uncover the cadre of female reporters and photographers who were right in the thick of things with the men – despite the battle they had to be permitted, and ultimately, accepted in that role.

Yet again, I was reading a book (I’ve been known to do that ….) called Shining Through by Susan Isaacs. The novel concerned a young Jewish woman who decides to help the war effort and ends up working for the US government and the OSS – the clandestine group that would become the CIA. As a German-speaker, she ultimately volunteers to become a spy in Germany, putting her own life in peril. Lo and behold, I discovered that, indeed, numerous intrepid American women were employed by the OSS (including Julia Child), and while most worked at desks or other, safer duties, many actually were trained and went into occupied territories, a number of them losing their lives.

Once I became enmeshed in the history of the female participants in WWII, and called to mind my aunt’s nursing service, that was another role I investigated. Sure enough, the role of the nurse was a vital one, and many perished in their duties working on the front lines. Early in the war when the generals let Guadalcanal surrender, a number of them were left behind caring for wounded prisoners and these nurses were subsequently captured, and spent the remainder of the war in Japanese POW camps such as Santo Tomaso, under horrific conditions – many of them, along with other internees, dying of disease and starvation.

Bette Midler’s film, “For The Boys” tells the story of a character some say was based on real-life singer Martha Raye and her USO tours during WWII. Lots of other women, famous and otherwise, toured with the USO. Marlene Dietrich for example, though German, was a fervent anti-Nazi and was a familiar USO performer. Soldiers recalled a particular instance in which she, clad in her ubiquitous slacks, helped soldiers get a rolled over Jeep back upright, wiping her hands and walking away afterwards.

Attempting to uncover more of the history of New York City during the War I came across “Over There” and “Helluva Town”, non-fiction titles that covered in great detail the City and surrounding areas during that time. Wouldn’t you know it? While I already knew of the most famous of the WWII female – the iconic Rosie the Riveter – when I read of the plot to sabotage the Long Island Grumman aircraft factory by an American Bund group, which was being funded by money coming in from the German Nazi party, a light bulb went off – how about a heroine Rosie who helps to thwart the plot?

An old movie from my (impressionable) youth, “The Yellow Rolls Royce”, a trilogy of romances involving the title auto. In one segment, a widowed American woman is trapped in Yugoslavia when war breaks out. With her car, her money, and her American fortitude, she aids the Yugoslav partisans in their battle against the Russian and German invaders (falling in love with one, natch). In fact, upon researching, there were many women caught behind enemy lines – including the wives and daughters of missionaries in the Far East. Yet another heroine’s story was born!

So. Why were the exploits of these women so casually dealt with in the histories? I guess because most of them were written by men. But in recent years numerous female historians have uncovered these courageous women and have begun telling their stories. And the self-publishing industry has allowed many, many women who participated to relate their own stories. These first-hand accounts are exceptionally valuable because you are getting the flavor of the times, and the people and details you cannot find as easily in current reports about those times.

It’s been a wonderfully educational experience studying all of the material, and learning of more and more roles American women played in the struggle, and victory, during this conflict. And it just goes to show that ideas come from innumerable sources. For me, I’m well on my way thanks to personal histories, film and fiction, and historical sources. All of this information also means that I can, with luck, help illuminate the history of women in wartime by virtue of my fiction.