Monday, November 12, 2012
Hammering A Nail Into The Setting - Conversations With Molly Ringle.
Through my association with Central Avenue Publishing, I have had the opportunity to meet and befriend a number of really talented people - both staff who work behind the scenes and bring our books to gorgeous life in the world and fellow authors who are resplendent with talent and and great stories to tell. One of those colleagues who I have really enjoyed working along side (as well as with) is Molly Ringle, the Seattle based author of the titles "The Ghost Downstairs", "What Scotland Taught Me" and "Relatively Honest".
Molly has been one of the wisest people I've encountered and also one of the most hilarious and I have to admit here to having a significant amount of affection for her. Not only does she write truly wonderful stories, Molly is about the only person I know who loves the soundtrack to the early nineties movie "Singles" as much as I do. More recently, I discovered that she is a huge fan of Dead Can Dance, a group whose principal member, Lisa Gerrard, I have met personally on a couple of occasions. For those of you who are scratching your heads right now (*who the heck is Lisa Gerrard???*), think the "Gladiator" soundtrack - specifically the track "Now We Are Free" upon which Lisa Gerrard's voice can be heard.
Molly has racked up two decades worth of writing smarts and several best selling titles and she divides her time between her family, her writing and blogging where she's become renowned at the art of 'reworking' such classics as Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter into hilarious parodies. Molly was also a critical sounding board for me on my new novel "Gifts of the Peramangk" and she really helped me shape the story into the final product. Over several months I was sending her the disparate parts of the whole to her and she would review them and get back to me with the most amazing advice and suggestions. Her help was a diamond.
Today, I've invited Molly along to discuss the importance of setting in writing and how critical the element is in crafting a good and convincing story.
I started by asking Molly about how she learned about the importance of setting as a cornerstone to writing.
Ah, setting. I love setting almost as much as if it were one of the characters. And in a good novel it nearly is. What would Les Miserables be without the magnificence and squalor of Paris? What would the Harry Potter series be without smoggy London and the mystical Hogwarts castle grounds, complete with Whomping Willow and Shrieking Shack?
In my own novels I've learned the hard way that I must use a setting I can connect with, one that has its own form of beauty. Pathetic but true story: while living in the dull, flat, boring Sacramento Valley for grad school, I tried writing a novel that was set there. The whole novel failed; it lacked emotional connection throughout. There may be many reasons for this, but I blame the fact that I hated the setting. (I plan to rewrite that story someday, moving it several miles east to the much prettier Sierra Nevada foothills. Maybe that'll work.)
A setting can be fairly small. In my novel The Ghost Downstairs, nearly the whole book takes place within one house in Seattle. But it's a large, old, elegant, haunted house, so it gave me a lot of room (or rather, rooms) to explore. In What Scotland Taught Me, the setting encompasses the whole city of Edinburgh and, briefly, other cities and villages in the UK as my protagonist travels through them by train.
The genius of Molly's story telling is through her remarkable skill of describing setting - almost as a character in and of itself. She explains that this skill has been informed in part through her passion for travel.
I'm a serious Anglophile--or rather, entire-British-Isles-o-phile--and I spent a few months in Edinburgh myself on a work-abroad program in my youth. I was smitten with it. The city is beautiful, with medieval architecture and gardens and a gigantic castle on a crag right in the middle of town; but it also has a brutal and fascinating history of murders, witch-burnings, plagues, and other harrowing deaths. So naturally I had to include a ghost-hunter among my characters, and freak her out by sending her to some of the world's most notoriously scary cemeteries. Viewing the city through the eyes of newcomers--American work-abroad kids, like I used to be--turned out to be a handy way to showcase Scotland's attractions.
Where travel was not readily available to Molly, she resorted to more creative and research based methods for building setting and layering it into her work.
I went the other direction for my novel Relatively Honest: I had a London lad move to Oregon (which is where I grew up) for university, and undergo his own bit of culture shock. Since I have plenty of love for London too, I did take the opportunity to use it as a setting for some chapters of Relatively Honest. Thousand-year-old Westminster Abbey, in the summer rain, at night--how could I resist that as a romantic setting?
For both Relatively Honest and What Scotland Taught Me, I was writing from way over here in Seattle, and couldn't (alas) take the time and expense to visit the UK and verify my facts about Edinburgh, London, and stops in between. Google Maps and Street View are fabulous tools (and fabulous distractions) for checking details, but even those websites have their limits. Therefore, not wishing to get anything wrong, I sent my manuscripts to British friends and got myself a proper Britpicking--dialect, setting details, and all. Any remaining mistakes, as I say in the acknowledgements, are my own fault.
In crafting setting and populating her resultant worlds with her pivotal characters Molly sums up her passion for this aspect of the craft by contrasting the reading experience with travel it self.
Novels are a form of escape, and in that sense they're a kind of mini-travel. I hope through reading my novels, you get to see, smell, hear, taste, and feel some of the settings I've loved.