How Your Setting Sets You Up
It’s impossible not to notice a story’s time and place, but it’s easy to ignore how setting determines the tale’s shape, action, and content. Where, for example, would Huck have been without his river? Or Odysseus without all those islands, each with its unique delight or danger? If you start with the right environment you’ve gone a long way toward making your piece work. Choosing the wrong one will hamper your storytelling.
Take Tell Cotten’s Confessions of a Gunfighter. Young Rondo Landon is forced into the arms of a career outlaw after his family’s brutal murder leaves him alone and wandering over hostile plains with predators threatening from every direction. Landon’s bandit rescuer takes him to a secret valley hideout where he becomes the boy’s caretaker and mentor.
There’s nothing new about a western criminal disappearing into a concealed valley. Consider the hole-in-the-wall gang and dozens of other examples. But Cotten had other choices as well. Between jobs, Jesse James hid behind small town respectability. Other outlaws (fictional and real) hid their background and identities by drifting from ranch to ranch or town to town, never lighting anywhere for long. For Confessions, though, the valley was only workable choice. Though Cotten never says so, it’s hard to ignore the valley’s similarity to a womb with its narrow, hidden entrance, and nurturing, Eden-like ambiance. Protected and supported, Rondo learns to shoot and ride, and he develops a code that forbids killing even while relieving the affluent of excess cash. When he finally emerges from the valley for good and decides to rejoin law-abiding society, he carries his new skills and attitudes with him, and he has a code to live by and the skills to protect himself and the innocent from the ravages of unprincipled marauders. Without that fostering valley, the story of Confessions would have been impossible.
My two-volume saga of the Maxwell family’s fight against a brigand intent on slaughtering them all, The Maxwell Vendetta (Just released last week) and its sequel, The Second Vendetta, centers around the Circle M ranch in the Sierra Nevada’s fictional Sawtooth Valley. The ranch sits at the foot of three large peaks (Called Sawtooth, of course) and borders the springs which nourish the fertile valley which is home not only to the ranch, but to small farms and a thriving community.
The Maxwell family patriarch built the ranch from nothing, and it’s the location and symbol of the family’s public prestige and of everything they hold dear. Thus, though it would be relatively simple for the avenger to murder individual family members one-by-one as they travel here and there, true retribution for Michael Yellow Squirrel means destroying not only Maxwell people, but the ranch that means everything Maxwell. Though the novels’ action ranges far and wide, the Circle M is the life-force nexus, for protagonist and antagonist alike. Like Tell Cotten’s valley, the Maxwell saga would be impossible without their Circle M ranch.
Conclusion: Your setting is not just a time and place. If you choose well, it will not only work its magic on your characters and plot, not only structure the action, but will become the heart that pumps lifeblood through the body of your story.