The Sources of Story

Ever since I began to study the craft of writing seriously, I’ve been hearing that story must arise from character, that your characters must want something, and that’s what makes the story.

At the same time, I’ve come to believe that setting is a huge contributor to story. I was thinking yesterday about Charles Frazier’s book “Cold Mountain”. I had a lot of time to think, because I was throwing the ball for Sky and she spent ecstatic minutes rolling in the snow with the ball in her mouth before she brought it back.

On the face of it, “Cold Mountain” is a very simple story. W.P. Inman, a wounded Confederate soldier, goes AWOL and decides to walk home to the woman he loves. That woman, Ada, meanwhile has her hands full simply surviving in the wartime South.

The characters are well-drawn, richly described, with bits of their history, both individually and after they met, scattered through the book. But I believe that a huge part of what makes this story is the setting. The Civil War – as any war does – spread across the whole of the land in which it was fought. It affected everyone, from the brutal men who found an outlet for their nastiness in the Home Guard to the women who lost men and were forced to homestead alone in pioneer conditions. As Ada and Inman encounter different people, the reader gets to see possibilities for their lives, the branching roads that could take the story in many different directions, and to any of a dozen possible endings.

I find it hard to imagine this story without the contrasts of the ante-bellum South and the South of the Civil War, without the cut-loose, it’s-all-gone-to-hell attitude of some of the people and the others who valiantly try to hold order together in the face of chaos. Perhaps it could be told as well set in any other war, but I don’t think so. It wouldn’t be the same story.

Why do I love the Brother Caedfael mysteries of Ellis Peters? It’s the characters, yes, but also the world of England torn between Stephen and Matilda, and the world of England at the Welsh border and Wales at the English one. It’s the Abbey of St Peter and St Paul, and St Giles’ hospital, and the village of Shrewsbury that make the stories quite as much as the Crusader-turned-monk herbalist.

In “The Swan Harp” I wrote an episode that takes place in a bog, and people who’ve read the manuscript tell me that the bog is fascinating. I know that there are characteristics of it that drive the plot, and that the things that happen there could happen nowhere else. In building the post-Conquest English manor and village of Thorpe, I’m trying to make a world that also will drive story.

When Jake MacDonald gave his workshop in Thessalon, he said that to really see a place you have to get out to the part that is real. I think if you’re going to tell a good story, you have to have a setting that is real, compelling, and “deeply intertwingled” with the characters.

The next time someone tells me that character is what makes story, I think I’ll have to ask, “What about setting?”

If they say “Setting can be a character, too,” I may just have to put out a contract on them.

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2 Responses to The Sources of Story

  1. This is so well articulated, Elizabeth! I have long been an advocate of setting as the emotional foundation of character (fictional or real), i.e., setting and time in history, even if it’s a fantasy setting and a time yet to come. Do you remember the old saying, “Who you are is where you were when”?

    Each time I work with a character, I find myself asking that question. For me, it’s a way of unraveling the secrets they keep hidden—secrets meant to be uncovered by the story.

    Great post, thank you, Elizabeth! I’m looking forward to coming back again and again.

  2. ecreith says:

    Thanks, McKenna. No, I’ve never heard that saying – it’s definitely one for the commonplace book.


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