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The Importance of Setting

July 28, 2008

Today is July 14th and the reason I’m writing this blog so early is because I’m supposed to be at Cocoa Beach on July 28th. Like an answer to prayer, a friend of mine who owns a condo there offered it to me and the family for an entire week! I imagine myself so busy frolicking in the surf that I’ll have no time to blog, so I’m planning to just find this on my laptop and send it off with the click of a few buttons.

I haven’t been to the beach in years. Guess you might call it a case of genteel poverty. One child is in college and my husband recently started his own business, and both of these require sacrifices.

A need to be at the beach every summer germinated in the days of my Georgia childhood. Come July my parents and us four kids would jump into our wood-paneled station wagon and head to Florida. Florida was another world, an enchanted place that made me want to hang on to every second so that our vacation would never end. When we’d spy the Florida Welcome Center on the side of the interstate, we’d sit up straight and eager. My dad pulled into the parking lot and was barely stopped before we’d jump out of the backseat and go tearing to the wall-sized rack of brochures about places like Sea World and Weeki Watchi, pictures of mermaids and Flipper gracing the covers. At the desk, a nice lady in a crisp white sleeveless blouse and a perky bouffant with little pincurls (this was the 60’s and ’70′s) would hand us each a plastic cup shaped like an orange, full of REAL Florida orange juice. Back in the car our saved up allowance dollars burned holes in our pockets. Soon as we’d checked into our hotel, we’d make a beeline to the nearest aqua-colored tacky souvenir shop and come out with bags full of over-priced conch shells, rubber alligators, dried seahorses, and shellacked sand dollars. But the best part by far was the sandy shores …. and the ocean.

I bet you’ve heard it said that the mind is the strongest organ when it comes to sex, and indeed, the mind is a very powerful thing in lots of aspects of life. There’s a story about this man in an Iranian prison who survived a long isolation by weaving a rug in his mind.

Well, I don’t weave rugs, but to compensate for my straitened circumstances of too much time with no trip to the beach, I have my own devices. Over the years I’ve constructed this elaborate selection of mental settings, and so around 11:00 PM each night, when I lie down in my bed, I choose the escape I desire, make that need, to go to sleep by. I have several favorite settings I’ve honed to perfection over the years; places like my memaw’s farm back in the 70′s, some rather carefree days when I was in college and experiencing the accompanying freedoms of being on my own for the first time, and the beach. I mentally transport myself into these places using the five senses: sight, smell, taste, touch, and sound. Until I’m there in that place. It’s kind of like a drug.

I don’t plan to use these settings in a novel I’m writing, they’re simply for me to BE in them. Speaking of being in a place, have you ever noticed that some stories exist in a vacuum? Lines are spoken without any description of setting. To me, that’s like going to a play, entering the darkened theater and taking your seat, and then never having the stage lights come on. I believe place is a strong force in a story, and it’s probably the first thing in every book I want to make clear to readers. Setting lends weight and substance to scenes, and I work to show what the landscape’s like; the color of the soil, the plants that grow there, how light would look in different seasons or different parts of the day, etc…

Mainly, though, setting takes people away, and isn’t that why we read? It’s crucial that the reader feels transported into the story. I want him or her to get lost in the world I create; to look up an hour, maybe two, later, and blink with surprise to see where they actually are.

So, I’m wondering if I can put my fantasy beach into words; which as a writer I should be able to do: I’m going to try to take you to Cocoa Beach with me: I love the very name Cocoa Beach. It brings images of Cocoa Krispies, of chocolatey-colored sand and frothy milk-white foam at the edge of waves which are rhythmically licking the sand as my footprints weave a pattern behind me. I feel the sunlight like hot honey on my skin, taste the salt of dried ocean on my lips, smell the coconutty sweetness of Coppertone sunblock, hear the raucous cries of seagulls circling. It’s my favorite time of day to be on the shore; when the tide is way, way out, and there are lots of little tidal pools, puddles in depressions of sand. Some are filled with little fish, darting. Some are warm, some coolish, but all shallow enough to be certain what is in there, and so I sit down in one that comes just to my ankles. I trail my fingers in the silky, wet sand. Strewn along the beach are transparent jellyfish lying prostrate, live starfish with all their dark little hairs on the underside. Looking over one shoulder I can see the tacky neon sign of Ron Jon’s famous surf shop, and if I look out beyond the surf toward the horizon I can see the masts of shrimp boats in beautiful dark geometric shapes. These make me sigh with pleasure to think of an impending visit to The Seafood Shack for supper; a plate of fried shrimp, hush puppies, a baked potato loaded with puddles of butter and sour cream, and an icy cold Coke.

I know I’m not alone. Have you noticed the plethora of beach scenes on book jackets these days? Look in any bookstore or through a recent book catalog and there they are, a long line of novel covers featuring bare female legs, toes buried temptingly in sand, diaphanous dresses fluttering in salty breezes, and beyond that…THE RIPPLING OCEAN.

I keep titles of books I’d like to write in my purse, and lately I heard an advertisement over the radio while I was riding in the car. I wrote down a phrase from the ad that really spoke to me, called to me with pleasant images of swaying palms and frothy surf: A REFRESHING TROPICAL FLAVOR. But the more I ponder it, I worry people might think it’s a cookbook, and I also worry that I don’t really know any more about tropical stuff than what a roll of Tropical Fruits Lifesavers tastes like, but then I think maybe I can still use it if I just have this character who’s really pining to be there., who dreams so hard she mentally transports herself to the tropics while she’s doing something like scrubbing toilets, or paying the bills, or…

Truly, Julie

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