Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Significance of Setting

As any regular readers of this blog know, I have three careers--mother, writer, and English teacher. I take all three of these jobs very seriously, and I've noticed since beginning this blog the overlap that exists between my triumvirate.

Sometimes I think my brain can only focus on one thing at a time. At the moment, I'm completely hung up on setting. I've been rereading both my finished manuscript and my current WIP frenetically with an eye to setting. It's gotten me thinking a lot about whether or not where a book takes place plays a major role with readers' experiences with the piece.

Let me explain ...

I've been rereading Dennis Lehane's mystery series featuring private detectives Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro. As private detectives, Patrick and Angie are able to investigate cases differently than police officers (for example, one of their best friends sells guns to criminals, but he helps them get a lot of information because he's in the midst of that world). What I really like about these books, though, is that they take place in Boston. Since I only live an hour away from Boston, I've gotten to visit that great city quite a bit, and it's really neat to see places and landmarks I know incorporated into literature.

I have to admit that I enjoy the quick, fast-paced, ridiculously twisty-turvy mysteries. I eat them up like popcorn. I love Jonathan Kellerman's Alex Delaware mysteries, for example, but I wonder if I'd love them even more if I'd ever been to California. Does it really make a difference? And could it even go the other way ... in other words, is my interpretation of Kellerman's depiction of L.A. more true of what he intends than it would be if I'd walked the city streets and viewed the Pacific on my own? Would someone who's never been to Boston feel differently about Lehane's works?

I'm teaching summer school right now, and Walter Dean Myers' Monster is a hot commodity. The book takes place in a juvenile detention center in Manhattan ... and, of course, a courtroom. It struck me today how kids in a small New Hampshire town are able to relate to this decidedly different setting.

So how important is a book's setting? Can it detract as well as add to a reader's experience with a book? Is it limiting? Would it be better to have a work that could take place anywhere, a book that could appeal to everyone through its universality? Is that even possible : ) ?