I haven’t posted in a few days. I went down to Cape May, NJ–one of my most cherished places–with my husband-to-be, my sister, her boyfriend, and a friend for New Year’s Eve. I was excited to head down the GSP to be in my favorite place regardless, but what made this trip even more uncanny for me was the fact that a short story I’m currently writing actually takes place in Cape May. So, in a sense I was doing research…on location. So excited to say that.
It wasn’t real research. I wasn’t scouring libraries and town halls for archives, or arranging interviews with the historical society down there, it was more about sniffing out the environment. The story is not a commentary on CM’s history; it’s just a story that happens to be set there.
It worked, I felt the pulse of my story penetrating through my mind while I was visiting. We went to the bar where the main action occurs, and I tried to memorize as many details as I could. I mocked myself a little, thinking: a real intrinsic type would have brought a notebook to record every subtle element that presents itself.
Here’s what I recall:
-Wall-length, front windows that open up during summer, letting the sea-salty air from the ocean across Beach Avenue waft through into the dining area
-J-shaped black top bar
-Chalkboard-style surfboards displaying dinner specials written in blue, pink, and green chalk
-Gingerbread trimming on outside
-Two story building, neighboring a second bar–looks like apartments above venues.
-Pool table, stage for band, small dance floor
-Semi-dank mini hallway leading to semi-dank restrooms
-Overall dim atmosphere, mostly neon lighting
-Bungalow-y themed, makes one recall Bob Marley
Not bad for having written nothing down. Of course I’ve been to the place numerous times, but my desire to memorize both macro and micro details suggests a further emergence of my ‘intrinsic abilities.’
Understanding place or setting in a given story is particularly crucial in fiction. A good way to determine whether setting has been effectively established is to consider how different the story would be set someplace else. Would it be the same tale? Could it be the same tale?
My novel is set on the “Jersey side” of the George Washington Bridge. No particular town, just based on those that make-up that general area. A few weeks back I visited a friend in Fairview, NJ (right next to Cliffside Park, NJ) and I felt like I was in the setting of my novel. The sardine-style housing, the view of NYC, the busy traffic, and overall sense of edginess that embodies the vicinity…I felt thoroughly relieved that I had somehow, nailed it. Sure, I’m from northern Jersey myself, but not quite the setting of my book. It gave me confidence that such a place exists, and that my readers will be able to feel the place that holds all the drama, energy, conflict, and functioning of the story.
Note in point: Let your setting breathe. When one thinks of memories, childhood, etc. he/she always conjures a place first. I get random, aimless visions of places in my mind constantly. I’ve never seen them before, but I know them. Many of my stories start that way.
Setting can be a great place to start. Just saying…