Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Words and Places

Today my guest is author Gerrie Ferris Finger. Unlike myself, she's always known she was going to be a writer. Welcome, Gerrie.

I knew I wanted to be a writer by the time I read my first storybook. Words enthralled me and still hold that particular power. My fascination with stringing words together naturally grew into composing mysteries. I recall an early story about our barn door being left open and one of our horses getting out. Who had left it open and why? No one admitted doing it, so the silence grew into a more sinister saga. The horse was out all night and developed a cough, and I couldn’t ride in a show the next day. Evil forces at work; which opponent wanted me out of the ring?

More than one great novel has grown from a simple childhood tale like that. But when aspiring writers grow into maturity, they must deal with the trappings of character development, setting, plot, subplot, etc. and that’s when simple becomes complicated. E. M. Forster wrote: “The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died and the queen died of grief is a plot. The queen died and no one knew why until they discovered it was of grief is a mystery, a form capable of high development.”

Of all the elements of a novel, I love setting best, one so important to me that I begin with where I want my story to take place. It is essential for me to know that because it influences my plot and characters. P. D. James wrote that it establishes atmosphere… “by contrast between the beauty and outward peace of the scene and the turbulence of human emotions.”

I could not have said it better. (Along with many powerful and beautiful words and sentences she writes.)

In my novel WAGON DOGS, the setting is on a plantation in south Georgia. I know that country very well having lived there for many years. The beauty of its pines, magnolias and shrubs, birds in flight, hunters out for a day of shooting, gorgeous wagon dogs pointing and retrieving, their tails aquiver at the first flush – an ideal lovely day in late fall. Then comes the discovery of a guide’s body. I wrote that scene before I established the characters, their motives and the turbulent plot.

Other times a plot can dictate a particular setting. I visited Palm Springs a couple of years ago and grew to love the enchanting high desert. I made up my mind to write a novel featuring the land and its people. In THE LAST TEMPTATION, a scene that percolates throughout the novel goes like this:

Back on the road, it wasn't ten minutes until we came to a vast three-storied, man-made, mud-brick structure, with rows of cutouts for windows. It looked deserted. Air compressed in my chest and I shivered.

'Indian apartments,' Tess said. 'We call them the Adobe flats. What do you see in them?'

'Sorrow, despair.'

She nodded. 'Decades ago, many families lived in them. Children starved. Women were old at fifteen. Men laid around and died of peyote poisoning. Many claim they hear the ghosts of those who lived there when they pass by.'

I was glad to circle away from the haunted, ill-fated stretch of misery.

So I conclude by saying, it all begins with words and a place to lay them down.

Gerrie Ferris Finger grew up in Missouri then came south to write for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She has three ebooks in the Laura Kate Plantation Series: WHEN SERPENTS DIE, HONORED DAUGHTERS, WAGON DOGS, just released by Desert Breeze Publishing. In 2009, Gerrie won The Malice Domestic/St. Martin's Minotaur Best First Traditional Novel for THE END GAME, published by St. Martin's on April 27, 2010. For more, visit her website


Linda Kage said...

I always knew I wanted to be a writer since the first grade when my teacher read one of my poems and praised it in front of the whole class. She was probably just being nice, but I never got that notion out of my head! Thankyou so much for sharing how you came into writing. Great post. Good luck with all your sales. The Last Temptation sounds intriging.

Jemi Fraser said...

Gerrie - you have a lovely turn of phrase! I love it when the setting is a character!

Gerrie Ferris Finger said...

Thanks so much. Setting is often overlooked as a character, but it's foremost in the development of any novel. A simple example: you can't have two characters conversing without a background. Where are they, what do they see as they speak? Setting gets short shrift, but it's paramount in creating scenes for our characters.

Anonymous said...

Powerful use of setting, Gerrie! Thanks for this. What a punch! Love the way you've used it to invoke emotions.


Gerrie Ferris Finger said...

I learned from my first fiction efforts. As a journalist the 'where' is a street name or a location i.e. northwest Atlanta, and that's about it for setting. Journalists (like me) have to learn to write setting, ambience, etc., because it's not part of the reporter's tools of the trade. Exceptions are travel writers and columnists.