It’s Halloween night, and I am sitting on the edge of a pub stool in Dingle, Ireland, warming my hands with a mug of (appropriately) orange-colored soup. The deftest voice I’ve ever heard is crooning through a ballad, inspired by a 13th century insane asylum . . .
My staff has murdered giants, my bag a long knife carries / for to carve mince pies out of children’s thighs/ and feed them to the fairies
My friend and I arrived in Dingle early that evening, with the intention of buying a postcard and moving along to our next destination. Fortunately, the town of Dingle was not forthcoming in postcards. We prowled streets of jewel-toned shops, breathing in fish and ocean spray. Soon, shadows were slipping down from the hills surrounding Dingle to fill the gaps between houses and shops and docked sailboats. With the shadows came trick-or-treaters, chattering in Gaelic, their piping voices as fey as the letters that had baffled me from street signs.
It was then that we heard the flute. As breath is life, and the music of a flute is born of breath, there is something deeply alive about the music of a flute–and so, we followed it into a pub.
In October of 2015, I decided to go to Ireland on a whim. I was there for four days, along with a dear friend (the kind of friend who, when you call to say “I just bought a plane ticket to Ireland. Come with me?” replies “YES! YES! YES!”)
I really can’t express how amazing that trip was. For one thing, Ireland was jaw-droppingly beautiful. For another, going to Ireland on a whim was one of the most true-to-myself decisions I have ever made. Was it convenient? No. Was it advantageous to my career? No. Was it a service to a friend or to my community? No. I did it for no other reason than because I wanted to, and the feeling of liberty that comes from doing something for no other reason than because you want to is amazing.
Of course, I wanted to hold onto my memories of Ireland for as long as possible. Aka. I wanted to write Ireland down. On the airplane ride there, I thought about tricks to capture a setting and capture it fast. Here’s what I came up with:
Tune in with all your senses.
My favorite writing manual, Reading Like a Writer, discusses the importance of using all of your senses to write descriptive passages. Since setting is mostly conveyed in descriptive passages, the advice applies heavily to setting!
Don’t just document what you see. Document the foods you taste, the way the air feels on your skin and the earth feels under your feet. Document the way an accent sounds, the noises of a city, the animals you hear. Document the smell of the pillowcase at your bed and breakfast or the downtown fish market.
One of the strongest impressions Ireland made on me was it’s aroma: sort of like flowers, ocean, and sheep. I finally understood why so many deodorants and aftershaves have names like “Irish Green” or “Irish Breeze.” Ireland actually has a smell, guys!
Learn some history.
Setting is not just about a place. It’s also about a time!
Even if you’re not planning on writing a historical novel, you should know the history of your setting and, importantly, you should know the relationship between the present and the past. A setting without a history is like an amnesia patient; the sense of identity is largely lost.
Why, for instance, did Irishmen scowl when we mentioned a sight we’d like to see in Belfast (a city in Northern Ireland)? And why is the castle on yonder hill crumbling under the weight of ivy rather than being occupied by a lord or lady?
Having a rich setting is great, but I can’t think of any books off the top of my head that are written strictly about a setting. Maybe setting is a crucial part of the story (as in Walden, Henry David Thoreau or Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad) but the story lacks movement without characters to interpret and react to the setting.
Study the ways in which people interact with your setting. Are the streets full of national flags and flower gardens, or are alleys garnished in trash and government signs covered in graffiti? What effect has weather had on fashion styles? What kinds of livestock and crops do farmers grow?
In Ireland, my friend and I were amused by what we called “neck blankets,” massive scarves worn by men and women alike. Of course, there were moments that the windchill would have made us grateful for a neck blanket of our own! (Plus, by the end of the trip, we thought they were stylish.)
Take thorough notes.
I’m not sure if this is the case for everyone, but in my own experience, the human power of observation far outstrips the human memory capacity.
Luckily, there’s an easy way to immortalize the little details that bring a setting to life: write them down or take pictures.
My camera was full of oddities when I got back from Ireland: a butcher in black and white checkered pants, different types of grass growing out of stone walls, random beach flotsam. I also had a notebook full of weird words I heard people using, colors I saw, and feelings.