Tag Archives: ray bradbury

A Walk in the Park

On September 20, 1976 at Northwestern University, I met a bright young lady who would before long become my wife. One day that fall I happened to be in her dorm room looking at a poster hanging on her roommate’s wall, a gorgeous photograph of forested mountains draped in the oranges, reds, and golds of autumn. As I admired the poster a story came to mind, and in short order I wrote the first draft of “National Park.”

To be honest, it wasn’t very good. I still had a lot to learn about writing in those days. Over the years, the story was rewritten and recast several times. You can read the current incarnation here, and I suggest you do before going on, because what follows is a serious spoiler.

Initially the story featured one lone character making a climb up a treacherous mountain. The climb lasted only a few pages, and was followed by a startling revelation. (This is where the spoiler comes in, so if you haven’t read the story yet, better do so now!) I left the climber intentionally anonymous, to emphasize what I hoped would be a stunning transformation from the richness of the natural world  to the desolation of the city in which he finds himself.

[SPOILER ALERT!]

That’s right: the National Park isn’t a natural wilderness at all, but a virtual reality experience. The climb didn’t happen except in the character’s head. The story was a cautionary tale about the destruction of the natural world and how increasingly we were being severed from it.

Not bad for 1976, a time when the term “virtual reality” hadn’t even been coined, although a few SF writers had created virtual reality stories before (Bradbury’s brilliantly chilling short story, “The Veldt” comes to mind). Alas, it wasn’t a well-written story.  Over the years I would rewrite it several times.

Even in its improved forms, readers didn’t seem to know what to make of it. One editor rejected it with the comment that although he enjoyed it, at the end all I’d done was to build up the danger to the climber and then reveal that he hadn’t been in any danger at all. Obviously the guy totally missed the point. The danger is real; it’s just not what it first appears to be.

Others told me to give the climber a name, and as I learned more about the sport of climbing, I added considerable detail to the preparations and the climb itself. I also added some other characters, partly to increase the realism and partly to increase the tension. Last but not least, the original story didn’t have a very good hook. The current version starts with one of the climber’s companions suggesting that he’s going to die on the mountain.

Today, virtual reality stories are so commonplace that I doubt “National Park” would excite any editor. So it is now relegated to my files and this blog. But I hope you enjoy it anyway.

 

Setting: Harder Than You’d Think

Of the three main elements of fiction–plot, characterization, and setting–setting is arguably the most challenging.  You might think otherwise.  My Howard County mystery series is, for example, set in Howard County, Maryland.  Where else?  The plots of the novels can’t be stated so simply, and the characters are (I hope) sufficiently complex as to defy such brief description.  So what could possibly be so hard about the setting?

There are several ways to answer that question.  To start with, setting is not monolithic: it has a surprising number of components.  Different writers spell it out in somewhat different ways, but let’s start with three key aspects of setting: where, when, and who.

  • In broadest possible terms, where involves universe, galaxy, solar system, planet, land or sea, every level of geopolitical territory imaginable, building, and room.  A location is not just a specific place but an entire conglomeration of nested locations.  Knowing that a character is in a room is not enough.  A room in a pricey high-rise condo in Manhattan is hardly the same as a room on a derelict spaceship drifting without fuel through the emptiness of intergalactic space .
  • When can involve historical era, season or time of year, time of day, and elapsed time (how long something has been going on, how long it’s been since something happened, how far apart in time two scenes are, etc.).  One might include the weather in this category, since it changes over time.  Some aspects of when may be constant (a whole story may take place in 1865), but some are ever-changing (the story may take place over the course of a month).
  • The who part of setting is distinct from characterization, involving socio-political culture (itself a complex of history, religion, tradition, etc.), ancestral influences, and population density.  It’s the human background and surround against and through which the characters move.

Another way of understanding the complexity of setting is to think about its interplay with the scenes in a story.  Except in the case of single-location stories (e.g., “In The Butcher Shop”), action is spread over a sequence of scenes which take place in a variety of places, times, and conditions.  The first of my Howard County mysteries, The Fibonacci Murders is naturally set in Howard County, but each scene is located in a particular place within the county: any of several houses, a shopping mall, a state park, the county police department’s Northern District Headquarters, and so forth.  The story unfolds over the course of a couple of weeks, with scenes set at different times of day and in different weather.  Indeed, some of the action in my second novel, True Death, reaches beyond Howard County, even to the Rocky Mountains.  Except in the simplest cases, setting is always changing, just as the plot and the characters are.

The interplay of setting with plot and characterization is more complex still, because setting can influence and even control those elements.  Imagine, for example, that your character must get to the top of a mountain to find an artifact necessary to saving the world.  The location and shape of the mountain will play a vital role in determining how easy or hard it will be for her to succeed.  Indeed, the mountain may render success impossible or even kill her.  Moreover, conditions on the mountain may influence her state of mind and thus her actions, or the experience of climbing may ultimately change her in some way.

Finally, setting can establish tone and mood, and may be used symbolically to reflect other aspects of a story.  I’m currently writing my third Howard County mystery, Ice on the Bay, which sprang from a detail of setting: last January as I drove over the Francis Scott Key bridge on my way to work, I saw to my surprise that the water was nearly frozen over.  (In twenty years here I had never seen that happen.)  Cold weather permeates the novel and mirrors the spiritual state of certain characters in the book.

As you can see, then, setting is neither simple nor easy to get right.  It should be treated as a dynamic element of a story, just as plot and characters are.  In reality, all elements of a story interact with each other, setting included.  Otherwise, you don’t really have a story at all.

A New Short Story

I haven’t written any short stories for a very long time, but recently one imposed itself on me, so I wrote it.   I thought I’d post it here as a free sample of my writing for you.  It’s called “In the Butcher Shop.”  I hope you like it.  Feel free to post comments.  (You’ll need to create an account first.  Sorry, but it’s necessary to control spam.)

Stylistically, “In the Butcher Shop” is a bit different from my novels, The Fibonacci Murders and the forthcoming sequel, True Death.  While writing it, I had the curious sense of channeling Ray Bradbury, although admittedly I’m nowhere as good as he is.  Bradbury is, however, one of the big influences on my writing, so maybe there is something to that feeling.  I guess you can be the judge of that when you read the story.

Enjoy!