Guest Post by Rick Skwiot, Author of Fail
Setting, to me, is the necessary foundation of a novel. Setting determines character, and character, in turn, determines plot.
Consider Huck Finn. He came from the underclass of antebellum Hannibal, Missouri—a notch above the slave Jim—and the son of an abusive father. Those circumstances lead to his staging his own death and fleeing down the river, where everything begins to turn. Or Anna Karenina, whose privileged social situation in 19th century Russia led to her meeting with Count Vronsky and her ultimate downfall.
Huck would not be Huck if he grew up the son of a wealthy Texas rancher nor Anna Anna if a common Irish milkmaid. They are who they are because of the time and place they came from, as well as their particular family circumstances and life experience. It is the same for virtually all of literature, from The Odyssey to Ulysses and beyond. You can see the importance of setting to iconic American novelists from Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck to Willa Cather and Carson McCullers. Their unique characters and stories spring from their settings, whether the Spanish Civil War, the Dust Bowl, the Great Plains, or the American South, respectively.
So the setting is what I begin with when writing a novel. My first novel, Death in Mexico—which won the Hemingway First Novel Award—came from a compulsion to depict the hard yet beautiful land and the tough yet warm people that had so affected me when I lived there. The characters in Death in Mexico could have come from nowhere else on earth, nor could the story be told except with the quirky Mexicans playing their roles.
Similarly, my novel Key West Story came from a desire to capture the emotional life of that very strange island, where I now live. The characters—including a young Ernest Hemingway reincarnate sent from Writer’s Heaven to help a destitute novelist—belong only in Key West; their actions that comprise the narrative, such as their human smuggling adventure in Cuba, could spring only from that setting.
With my new mystery novel, Fail, to be released October 27, 2014, by Blank Slate Press, I wanted to dramatize the abject failure of public education in my hometown, St. Louis. The Mississippi River, the Gateway Arch, the Dred Scott Decision, and the mean streets of America’s erstwhile murder capital all play a role in the novel. They help define my characters, including my point-of-view character, an African- and Mexican-American St. Louis cop who inadvertently unearths a morass of political corruption and educational malpractice—information that could cost him his life. The failure of inner-city education is a nationwide story, but this story and these characters could come only from St. Louis.
Setting is the novelist’s greatest resource and treasure. It is what grounds, enriches and makes plausible and real the story that he or she needs to write. So when other writers tell me they are looking for a new story idea or are blocked as a writer, I always suggest, “Take a trip.” Preferably to somewhere you’ve never been. Go by raft, by horseback, or by foot, at a slow pace where you get involved with the land and the people, and stay awhile. Everyone has a story. And usually it comes from being who they are, which in turn came from being where they were.