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Ciji Ware | Is A Novel’s Setting Also A “Character?

March 30, 2012

Ciji WareA LIGHT ON THE VERANDAWhen I was working as a television and radio host “in another life,” I once interviewed a very famous romance writer who responded rather curtly to my question about her techniques when researching the setting and background of her characters. “Listen honey,” she replied with an edge to her Texas twang, “nobody cares who’s king–or what kingdom he’s from!” I guess she meant that, in her view, the characters’ backgrounds and the world they inhabited were unimportant. What mattered in historical romance was the sex.

And I suppose for some readers that tends to be true.

But not necessarily for other lovers of historical fiction–which is probably why I’ve gravitated toward writing a strong love story in my books—but I have always felt it important to include the “who, what, where, when, & why” about a story to bring imagined people to life.  Given these precepts I learned as a journalist, for me, this meant grounding my stories with strong sense of place and the history underpinning it.

I’ve always felt that what intensifies the bond between readers and the books they love (to say nothing of the bonds between a book’s characters as they fall in love) is revealing those subtle inner points of connection we all have to place that make us feel good, feel safe, feel that we’ve found “home.”

I’ve discovered that it’s much more interesting to write about a man and a woman who appear very different on the surface, but when you plumb deeper, there are all sorts of reasons why they would be attracted to each other in this place and at this time, surrounded by the environment they find themselves in.  I try to create a world for not only the heroine and the hero, but also the reader—a world that takes them on a journey that, in the end, brings everyone a sense of comfort and joy.

In my latest release, A LIGHT ON THE VERANDA, for instance, both lead characters meet by utter chance in small-town Natchez, Mississippi (population some 18,000) after having lived in big cities:  Simon hailing from San Francisco, and Daphne—born and raised in New Orleans—having lived some eight years in the whirl of New York’s professional classical music circles.  Why in the world would they both find their happy ending in lil’ ol’ Natchez, a place of great beauty and history, but not exactly “bright lights, big city?”

My answer?  It’s the setting!  Like my first “time-slip” novel A COTTAGE BY THE SEA, both MIDNIGHT ON JULIA STREET and its—then– proposed sequel needed to be set in a modern-day town with plenty of history behind it.

When I first drove the three-and-a-half hours due North from New Orleans to Natchez to determine whether it felt right to set A LIGHT ON THE VERANDA there, I took one look at the incredible Monmouth Plantation Hotel and I was sold!   This former reporter could no more have placed classical harpist Daphne Duvallon or nature photographer Simon Hopkins in the middle of Mississippi without checking out the location, than I could have filed a story claiming to have been in a place I’d never seen.  But when I saw an antique harp gracing the stunning front parlor, it was a sign from heaven my Juilliard trained harpist should definitely return to the South!

For me, anyhow, the setting is always a “character” in a novel.  It must be imagined, yes, but if it’s a real place, it only seems right to describe it and the people who live there as accurately as possible, and to do that, a writer must go there and act like a reporter, even if part of the story takes place some 170 years earlier!  And what a reward that effort can reap. Natchez is magical…mysterious…and has a beauty and faded magnificence that is practically hardwired into the DNA of anyone who has read Southern tales like Gone with the Wind. It’s got dripping moss, gothic family histories, and conflicts born out of the epic struggles of the Civil War and the lost world when Cotton was King and the country’s entire economy was based for a time on the production of this fine fabric.

Not only did Daphne and Sim discover why such a “foreign” place could exert such a hold on them, I, as the author had the incredible experience of peeling the layers of territory so far removed from my own American West so as to discover for myself the essence of such a fascinating locale: its people, history, cuisine, lifestyle, and yes, even its underbelly, which all truly intriguing settings possess.

And as I walked through the beautiful town cemetery one day, I knew that’s where the hero and heroine would find the answers to why Natchez meant so much to them both.  And my wish for my readers is that when the come to the last page of this story, they feel the same sense of “coming home…”

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