The Importance of Story Setting by Gordon Chaplin

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 “On Saturday afternoon Billy Buck, the ranch-hand, raked together the last of the old year’s haystack and pitched small forkfuls over the wire fence to a few mildly interested cattle. High in the air small clouds like puffs of cannon smoke were driven eastward by the March wind. The wind could be heard whistling  in the brush on the ridge crests, but no breath of it penetrated down into the ranch-cup.” –John Steinbeck, The Leader of the People. (1937)

Gordon Chaplin writes: Now that is powerful writing. So there’s the setting of the story. I’ll never forget it, though its characters and plot have faded in my mind and it’s only through the setting that they can be recalled. The setting never gets in the way. It is the way of the story.

I first read Steinbeck’s Cannery Row in high school, too, and was mesmerized by its mythical setting among the sardine canneries of Monterey. The book was published in 1945. When I found myself in college in the bay area in the seventies, I made a pilgrimage. The setting sets the stage for what comes next and almost determines it.

In the next paragraph we encounter a black cypress tree full of white pigeons so we know we’re somewhere near the California coast. The hills around the ranch-cup are “washed with lean March sunshine. Silver thistles, blue lupines and a few poppies bloomed among the sage bushes.” The poppies are another giveaway. They are the California state flower.

 “Jody plodded up the hill toward the ridge top. When he reached the little cleft where the road came through, the afternoon wind struck him and blew up his hair and ruffled his shirt. He looked down on the little hills and ridges below and then out at the huge green Salinas Valley. He could see the white town of Salinas far out on the flat and the flash of its windows under the waning sun.” Not too far away is the Pacific coast, where Jody’s grandfather, who’s coming to visit, lives and looks out, dreaming of his days as a pioneer leading the people west across the country. He can go no further.

*****This guest post on Writer’s Digest is by Gordon Chaplin. Chaplin is the author of the novel Joyride and several works of nonfiction, including Dark Wind: A Survivor’s Tale of Love and Loss and Full Fathom Five: Ocean Warming and a Father’s Legacy. His latest novel, Paraiso, is now available. He lives with his wife and daughter in New York City and Hebron, New York. Visit him at gordonchaplin.com and follow him @Gordon Chaplin.

 

5 thoughts on “The Importance of Story Setting by Gordon Chaplin

    1. Hello Mary Cathleen,

      Why yes, absolutely and I think that is what the author was saying, at least that is how I took it, however ambiguous the author presented it. Sometimes the setting itself is the most important character.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Confession: I often use Google images to pull up a picture or photo of what is in my mind for a story, then paste that image to my draft as I write…helping keep my mind focused on what I am trying to convey in mood and setting… This post is dead on!

    Like

    1. Hi KC, Yes, I often use Google images too! As written by sage philosophers, “A Picture is Worth a Thousands Words!” It is true that insightful words and pictures together often create the emotional and visual impact especially needed at times in poetry! Thank you so much and I am honored that you like my poem. K.D. 🙂

      Like

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