Thursday, September 1, 2011

Introducing East-Coast-Cheryl

So I’ve been offline while we made the big move. Within two weeks we’re unpacked, pictures and drapes are hung, and the moving boxes are handed off to others a la Craig’s List. Poof! Like magic, I’m transformed from Chicago/Midwest-Cheryl into Connecticut/East-Coast-Cheryl.

Gives new perspective to the Hamline residency that focuses on setting. I grew up in Ohio and have been in Chicago for 22 years. When my husband applied for his new job, I wondered, “Can I live on the East Coast? What parts of me will stay the same? What will be different?” The only way to find out was to come.

So far, East-Coast-Cheryl is addicted to the iphone app that shows my car as a purple dot on a roadmap. Roads here don’t subscribe to the grid system and street signs are inexplicably underfunded. Lots of people rely on geo-whatever-brand-mapping systems these days, but the important thing here is how my character feels about this detail of setting in my story. Chicago-Cheryl didn’t even have an iphone (there’s a telling character detail for you). Chicago-Cheryl knew where things and even when I didn’t, street signs and a glorious grid system were there to guide me. East-Coast-Cheryl feels indignant about major intersections with traffic lights and multiple spokes but zero street signs. I recognize, however, that nobody here thinks twice about it, which then makes East-Coast-Cheryl feel somewhat powerless in this new setting. Writer-Wherever-She-is-Living-Cheryl thinks there’s fodder here for a story in which getting lost is a repeating motif and spurs key plot points.

Don’t worry, I’m actually settling in fine. But I did previously promise an existential-identity-crisis post and don’t want to disappoint. And hey, East-Coast-Cheryl gets to eat soup and wear sweaters in the evenings as early as late August. Dig that.

So how does setting influence the character in a story you’re writing?

Or how did setting define something in your own life today that might be fuel for your stories?


  1. Dear East-Coast-Cheryl,

    Welcome to the land of hurricanes, accents, and at least two versions of the Real Housewives show!

    Setting and character must feel interconnected for me--as if the character aspirated from the soil--especially when the setting is in a small, fictional town in a southern state. I know the land, the dialects, the stories, the food, and all of it makes its way into the story. And what I don't know, I extrapolate from what I know [which is way more fun and all part of the fiction high].

    If a character lives in another place, like NYC [a YA character resides here], I don't "feel" the place as I write. She might as well have live in any major city with a Fashion Week. Yet, the small town, for me, informs the main character's decisions--it guides him, and shows up on the page far more. But sometimes, by knowing a small town well, I assume everybody else does. So, one of my MANY hair-pulling revision issues is filling in the gaps where the setting is clear in my head but unclear to a reader.

    Place seeps into our skin and courses through our veins. The more time spent in a place, the clearer it becomes. Then again, I'm slow. What's your experience with this?

    Great post, Cheryl!

  2. I think the film maker John Sayles is a brilliant example of someone whose stories rise out so much from setting that i have often wondered what came first the setting or the characters. As an East Coaster (a mid-Atlantic East Coaster) I feel for Cheryl during her move to New England. I went through similar emotions. It's a foreign land for so many of us and yet, it's kind of addictive for all the reasons you've just listed. It's complicated and confusing. That's kind of compelling. Personally I hate that I have to wear a sweater in August but that's just me.

  3. I seem to be ready-made setting addicted. Tucson (grad school) for a couple of books, L.A. for sure, and South Pasadena (where I live now) for "S&S" and others. That piece about Jesus I read at the residency is set in my hometown-as-a-child. Probably I just hate to make up stuff when I've got it right off the rack.

  4. I wonder if for others stories come with setting attached. Sometimes that's true for me. When I began The Water Gift and the Pig of the Pig, I knew it would be set on the coast of Maine.

    Though dowsing can happen in many places, and kids can have pet pigs in any rural setting (or urban maybe), the characters in this story were, from the beginning, Maine characters.

  5. In the scene I wrote this morning, a large iguana showed up at an outdoor wedding reception. (Or maybe it should be a monitor lizard in the revision... hmmm.) A lot of interesting things can happen in real-life Florida. If you don't believe me, visit Rebecca Stanborough's Facebook page.

    Happy writing East-Coast-Cheryl!

  6. What a great dialog going here. Marsha Chall and I have a running joke about how I am always calling myself a "Daughter of the West." One of these residencies I may show up in a cowboy hat and boots. But I think of that often as I write, having only lived in the West and great North west - Alaska where the inspiration for my first ten books came from. Happy holiday week to all.