Setting in a novel

by Rachel Creager Ireland

NaNoWriMo is coming soon, and I’ve resolved to do it this year. I have an idea, I’m excited about it, and I’m beginning to outline it so that next month I can sit down and fill it out into a 50,000+ word novel in one month.

It turns out that, previous novel experience notwithstanding, I have no idea what I’m doing. I knew last time that plot was a weak area for me, and I’m determined to improve this time around, but I’m having trouble materializing concepts about love and familial obligation into events that take place in three dimensions, which is where my characters live.

With Post Rock Limestone Caryatids, my previous novel, I had distinct settings, and I basically placed my characters in them and let them flail around and figure out what to do. I took much inspiration from the Flint HIlls prairie, where I live. Writing about the prairie was one of my essential motivations for writing the book, and some of the highest praise PRLC got was about my nature writing.

This time around, I’m writing fromΒ a dream. The heroine, Stella,Β is a farmer and a witch. She lives alone, because her mother and sister, years ago, disappeared. She obviously spends a lot of time outdoors, and she works with plants and, I suppose, some chickens. So the location of her farm is going to be pretty relevant.

At first I was thinking New England. It’s a natural place for witches, and there are beautiful old mountains to place a family farm, and lots of trees and water. The problem is, though, that I don’t know how people farm in New England, and I don’t know any particular places to work intoΒ the story. My New England experience is largely limited to a summer in Boston, twenty-five years ago. Nice city.

It would be sensible to place the book in the Flint Hills, to write what I know, as the adage goes. I’ve done a little work on a farm in this region. I know the climate and landscape well. But when I imagine Stella on the open prairie, she doesn’t seem to fit. I don’t know that I have more to say about the prairie at this time. I don’t see Stella as a rancher, and I don’t see the prairie as the place for all the changes she’s going to go through.

At this time I’m kind of leaning toward an imaginary place, with temperate forests and abundant water, with cities closer than they are out here (it’s 75 miles to either Topeka or Wichita, which some wouldn’t even consider to be cities at all). A place with very old trees, rich soil, roads and streets that wind among ancient mountains. A place with a culture that’s been more or less continuous for at least a couple hundred years, as opposed to the 150 or so since the Native Americans were kicked out of Kansas and replaced by the Europeans.

There’s freedom in making up my own place, but in some ways it’s more work. Most of the writing about the prairie in PRLC came directly from my own experience. At times, when I didn’t know what to do next, I could close my eyes and recall the prairie and feel the answers, or even go there and hike and listen to the sound of my boots on the earth and stone, or watch turkey vultures ride the wind overhead. How could I not write such a place?

I have just under a month to figure out where Stella’s farm is located. Then the marathon begins.

Readers, what are your thoughts on setting, on writing place, on preparing for NaNoWriMo?

How could I not write this place?

How could I not write this place?

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