Setting out to write a novel is a lot like setting out on a roadtrip. Everyone does it differently. Some people collect maps and make plans, some have only a destination in mind, others don’t even know that much. For them, it’s the journey that matters, destination left up to the whim of chance.
My husband is a planner. Yesterday morning, when we decided we were going to drive an hour and a half south of Atlanta to one of those wild animal safari parks (where zebras and bison slobber on your windshield), he printed off pages of directions, complete with three different maps in varying levels of detail. Having navigated four weeks of Europe with nothing but Rick Steve’s guidebook and a keen sense of direction, I laughed at his lack of faith and tossed the maps on the floor with the Egg McMuffin wrappers.
“It’s just one road the entire way,” I told him. “Stay on I-85 until you hit LaGrange.”
Forty minutes later, after dissecting the themes of both Breaking Bad and There Will Be Blood, my husband asked what exit we were looking for. And, because my sense of direction is good but apparently not good enough, I immediately started getting a Really Bad Feeling About This.
Two minutes later, we’re pulling off the highway.
“You were supposed to navigate!” he said, frantically pulling up Google Maps on his phone.
“You were supposed to stay on I-85!”
We weren’t on I-85. Not even close. According to Google, it was going to take us another hour and a half to get to the animal park, cutting through what appeared to be a glitch: no roads, no towns, just a massive wedge of nothing between where we were and where we were supposed to be.
(To be fair, staying on I-85 involved taking an exit somewhere near the airport. I just wasn’t paying enough attention to tell him that.)
This sort of thing happens to me a lot–and not just whenever my husband and I decide to get into a car together. As of late, my subconscious has been leading me down some pretty strange streets.
Writers may know what I’m talking about: make a plan, and prepare yourself to go waaaaay off-course. It’s almost like daring your writer-subconscious. “I’ll show you,” you think in your more lucid moments, while your subconscious is muttering, “We’ll see about that.”
I learned to trust my writer-subconscious a long time ago. It knows what’s up.
Most of the time, when I stare at the screen and nothing comes out, it’s because I have nowhere to go, and sure enough, the more I force it, the more we go wandering around in confused little plot circles. And when words pour like crazy, leading me further and further from my nice neat list of bulleted points, I know better than to try and yank it back on track. I’ve been sucking up stories for almost twenty-seven years now, so I’d like to think there’s a part of my brain that knows what it’s doing.
(Hopefully not connected to the part of my brain that knows where it’s going–because if our little roadtrip is any indication, that part needs some work.)
For some time now I’ve been trying to understand what’s been going on with WIP as of late, and a roadtrip is an excellent metaphor. Since 2007 this thing has squirted out of me in various forms and genres, all centered on one guy who lands himself in prison for a terrible, terrible crime. I don’t know why this guy fascinates me but I keep coming back to him, even when it doesn’t seem healthy or make a lick of sense.
Together, we’ve walked some strange roads, but none so strange as the ones we’ve walked this past year. For all of my plans, my notebooks full of dialogue, plot points, and description, I would never have planned on coming here, never in my wildest dreams thought my subconscious would bring me right back where I started: a fictional version of my hometown in all its illogical, country-fried glory.
Five minutes after my husband and I found ourselves tragically, hopelessly, and unapologetically lost, we ended up in Griffin, Georgia–a town I am sure you will recognize as the filming location of Sundance Channel’s Rectify, my favorite and arguably the best show of 2013 (which is saying a lot cos this year’s been great for television).
And I never would have gone there of my own volition because it’s way out in the middle of freaking nowhere.
Rectify is about Daniel Holden, a man released from Death Row after 20 years due to some murky DNA evidence, and his return to the southern town of his childhood raises questions about guilt, innocence, punishment and forgiveness that I recognized the moment it started–same as I recognized the town where it was filmed.
“Oh my god, that’s the graveyard where they beat the crap out of him,” I said, in much the same tone I used in the presence of Shakespeare’s birthplace and Hadrian’s Wall. “I can’t believe it’s right there beside the road.”
And, about two minutes later: “Look at that! That’s the cute little street, with the bookstore and Susan’s beauty parlor. Did they even do any set dressing? It looks exactly like the show.”
And so on, with the gas station where Daniel buys Smart Water and wonders if it actually makes people smart, and the creek, ten minutes outside of town, where Hannah was murdered. “Creeks kinda all look the same, you know,” my husband tried to reason, but I knew better. This was definitely the creek.
I tried to imagine what it would be like to grow up here, in a town even more rural than mine, what it’d be like to come back after twenty years and try to find your bearings. We moved to North Georgia when I was eight. I’ve never felt like I really belonged. Maybe bringing my characters home helps me define not only who they are, but who I’ve become, as well.
Ray McKinnon, creator of Rectify, might understand. He grew up in Adel, South Georgia, a place probably not so different from the fictional Paulie he created for the show. And like all good Southern Gothic towns, the Paulie of Rectify is a character that exerts a will all its own.
For years I’d tried to set my story of guilt, innocence, punishment and forgiveness in a town that looked like everywhere but could only come up with a hazy shade of nowhere. It wasn’t until I committed to a real place–a place real enough to me, at least–that my story finally started to come around.
How important is setting to your stories? According to agent and author Donald Maass, a setting with character is an essential quality of breakout fiction. How much of your settings comes from personal experience, and how important is personal experience to your writing in general?