Monday, January 9, 2012

The Trouble with Setting

I remember thinking that I knew all about Hawaii before I'd ever stepped my foot on the island. Hawaii was warm and tropical. Lots of plants and palm trees.

My trip to Hawaii, January 2007
If you'd asked me about the people that lived there, the "real" color of the water, or how different the islands near Hawaii were from one another I couldn't tell you. What I knew was what most of us know without having traveled there or read a pretty insightful book on the subject.

A few years ago one of my sisters went to Italy. She loved it there, came home and shared with me and my husband the photos they'd taken of the experience. They shared funny episodes like when the pigeons landed on my sister's head just because she wanted to feed them. I got a better idea of Italy, but because I hadn't been there personally, I'm sure there was something lacking in what I knew about Italy as it connected with setting.

This same sister read a book recently that I'd recommended. The setting was Italy. I thought she'd love it like I had because she'd been there. She didn't. My sister came away disappointed.

"The streets are all wrong in this book," she said. "The setting isn't right."

Even though the story itself was "beautiful," she said, "I kept getting hung up by the setting that wasn't right and it was difficult for me to entirely enjoy the book."

She was right, of course. I had never been to Italy, so I didn't know the details, but she had, and somehow, the author had missed the boat.

The truth about Hawaii?

Hawaii at sunset

For me, Hawaii was almost as much about the people as the setting. The Hawaiian people are warm and friendly, and you feel almost if you have known them for years. The water is bluer than your imagination can dream up. It is a robin's egg, that blue of your sister's eyes--the one that no one can take their eyes off off. Hawaii is commercial, with tall buildings and rushing people, and it is quiet and still especially on the island of Kauai.  

The trouble with setting? We think we know all about it until we visit or move there. But it's worth it to do one or both if we're going to be using the setting in our novel. At the very least we need to study the place as if we're going to be tested on it. If we don't, someone who has been there already, will know.



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