Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Creating A Great Setting: An Interview With Susan Dennard

One of the best parts of reading is being shown a new world. Setting can often serve as its own character in a book. When I think of my favourite settings, I think of The Chronicles of Narnia, Jane Eyre, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, The Kite Runner, and To Kill a Mockingbird. All these settings are dynamic, as they are constantly evolving and ultimately, helping to unfold the story and re-shape the characters involved.

When I heard about debut author Susan Dennard and her book, Something Strange and Deadly, I just had to contact her for an interview. Read more about how Susan used an original setting to create and develop her plot and characters.

In your YA novel, Something Strange and Deadly, you created an interesting setting, as the story takes place in 1876 Philadelphia. How did you go about developing this setting?

Well, I started by doing a ton of research (I mean weeks and weeks and months). Since Philadelphia is, you know, a real place, I wanted to make sure I got everything right in terms of locations and scenery. But on top of that, I really wanted to get the year right--what did 1876 feel like? How did a young woman behave? What would she eat for breakfast and wear to dinner? I found all those little details, and then as I wrote, I dropped them in.

One thing that historical writers will tell you is that you always do way more research than you actually use--if I had dropped in everything I learned, I'd have bored the reader to death. There's a very fine balance between not enough detail to paint the scene and so much detail the story gets bogged down.

How did the setting influence your plot?

One of the reasons I actually chose 1876 Philadelphia was because I wanted to have the Centennial Exhibition as a backdrop to my story. I honestly thought: how horrible and terrifying would it be for this giant celebration--the first American World's Fair in which people came from all over the world to share their countries' latest technological advances and artistic endeavors--to be crashed by walking corpses?

Additionally, I really liked how much conflict the time period would automatically add for a girl like Eleanor. She wouldn't be able to leave the house with a chaperon; she would be expected to behave a certain way at all times; she'd probably be very sheltered and stifled. On top of that, corsets are no laughing matter--can you imagine outrunning zombies when you're ribs are constricted so much you can barely breathe? I loved that there were all these layers of conflict already inherent to the time period. It gave extra obstacles for Eleanor to hurdle.

How did the setting contribute to the development of your characters?

Because girls of high society were so protected and so restricted to certain behaviors/clothing/ambitions, Eleanor was at a pretty big disadvantage from page one. She'd never had much need to think for herself, and she'd certainly had no exposure to people outside of her social circle.

Her setting made her the naive character that she began the book as, but because she's also curious and brave to the point of stupidity, she was able to step outside the confines of her society and experience other walks of life (or death--haha!). Of course, stepping outside and accepting outside aren't always the same thing, and it takes Eleanor the course of the book to really find her place in the world.

For many writers, especially science fiction and fantasy writers, setting is crucial to story and characters. What advice do you have for them when creating setting?

There's a balance between story and setting--whether the book is historical, mystery, or whatever. You might have created the most amazing fantasy world ever, but if you spend too much time describing it, you're going to bore your reader no matter what.

The key is to only show the parts of the setting that matter during each scene.
Oh--your character is running through a graveyard with zombies hot on her trail? We definitely don't need to know the history of the graveyard or why that big monument in her path is significant to the local town, but we do need to know there's a big monument in her path. We also should probably know the character's familiarity (or lack thereof) with the place. Is she stumbling and lost or does she know exactly where she's going because she visits her mother's grave everyday?

Setting is more than just what the world looks like or its history--it's also a critical tool for showing character and developing plot.

Learn more about Susan and her writing here.