by Marsha Qualey
I’m getting ready to go back to school. After a semester off I’ll be returning to active duty on the faculty at Hamline University’s MFA in writing for Children and Young Adults program. Faculty and students will be convening on campus in St. Paul, Minnesota in early January. During the residency we’ll cover a lot of ground in the workshops, lectures, seminars and conversations that pack the twelve days. The focus of the residency this time around is “Setting.”
This is a critical element to discuss in any writing program or workshop, but you can be sure that I did not raise my hand to take the lead on this subject. Other faculty members will be doing the main-topic lectures and break-out sessions, and, as always, I look forward to hearing what they have to say. While setting and location are important in my books and play a useful role in my stories, I’m the first to admit that I’m not a descriptive writer, nor am I a reader who revels in and savors descriptive prose. I tend to skim any description that’s long enough to need a conjunction or use more than one comma.
Setting is about more than physical description of course, and creating a successful, functional fictional setting involves more than methodically using “The Five Senses” to concoct lush prose. It’s the emotional resonance of place that always lingers with this reader. Yes, that resonance can often be generated by word-perfect description, but detailed description can also easily hinder a reader’s involvement and weaken his or her connection to the story by wielding too firm a directorial hand.
This past week I visited the Caddie Woodlawn house which is located about a half-hour from my home here in western Wisconsin. Caddie Woodlawn, by Carol Ryrie Brink, won the 1936 Newbery Medal, and the novel is based on Brink’s grandmother’s childhood. The house her grandmother lived in has been moved a few hundred yards from its original site, but it’s still on the actual acreage the family farmed, and it is open to the public.
I hadn’t read Caddie Woodlawn before I made the pilgrimage, but the moment I walked into the house it hit me that yes indeed, this was a novel-worthy place. With no knowledge of the characters or plot beyond what I read on the historical marker in the parking lot, I still easily sensed a story and could hear the commotion of children and pets and parents. By the time I went to bed that night I’d read the book, and could match Brink’s spare descriptions (Atta girl!) with what I’d seen. Yes the book was enriched by the details passed down by the real Caddie Woodlawn (and no doubt ripened a bit by the writer), but it was the silence and sun-filled rooms that truly triggered this reader’s imagination, making me curious about the famous book and, most importantly, leaving me space to conjure the sounds and images of a young girl’s life in 1862.
When I’m writing in my office and look up from my computer, my eyes land on a bulletin board. The largest thing pinned on the board is a colorized map of “Hill Street Hill.” The map is in fact a photocopy of the end papers of Betsy-Tacy, by Maud Hart Lovelace.Betsy-Tacy is about two five-year old friends, Betsy Ray and Tacy Kelly. The houses and yards of Hill Street define their known world—and it is a rich world. Whenever I reread Betsy-Tacy I notice each time that, yes, Lovelace liked a bit of lush description now and then and she certainly was a great one for details. In spite of her careful descriptions of her childhood neighborhood, however, and even though I’ve been in both of the actual houses in Mankato, Minnesota that are the real-life inspiration for the fictional houses, and even though I look at the map dozens of times each day, whenever I picture Betsy and Tacy’s homes in my mind I reverse their positions on the street. I always have and I suspect I always will. I’m good with maps and have an excellent sense of direction, yet I persist with this rearrangement of Hill Street. My obstinate re-imagining isn’t a result of the book’s faulty setting; to the contrary. Lovelace’s carefully crafted descriptions of Hill Street are vivid moments—sunlight highlighting scuff marks in an empty room–that create an inviting space, one that encourages but doesn’t dictate to the imagination.
And that’s as it should be, because a page or paragraph or even a line overfilled with details leaves no room for the reader.