Thursday, January 17, 2013

A Sense of Place by Anne Elisabeth Stengl

"A sense of place" is a term I use with my writing students. By this, I mean the establishing of a setting in the reader's mind. One of the most important tasks a writer will face--particularly a writer of fantasy, who must make it all up from scratch--is grounding a story and its characters in settings that are vibrant and believable. Coming up with a story or characters is the easy part. But where does this story take place? And how do the characters interact in their surrounding?

I had a tremendous time coming up with the various settings found within the pages of Starflower. Because this novel is primarily set in my Faerie world, I really had a task before me. You see, my Faerie world is made up of many thousands of separate demesnes, each ruled by a different Faerie lord or lady, and each governed by its own set of ordinances. This meant that each demesne I wrote about needed to be magical, mystical, otherworldly, and yet distinct from all the others.

That was a challenge!

The first setting I really delved into when writing Starflower was Rudiobus, realm of the Merry People. This was the easiest one because it is the most heavily influenced by previously established mythology. Rudiobus is based on Lepra, home of the Lepracaun, straight out of Gaelic mythology. Iubdan and Bebo are king and queen of Lepra and the Lepracaun, and I liked them so well when I read about them, I picked them right up and put them back down in my own world!

Rudiobus is a mountain, and the Merry People of Rudiobus live inside it, after the fashion of a classic Fairy Hill. They are small enough in this kingdom that a mountain is big enough to be a whole kingdom to them. King Iubdan holds court in Ruaine Hall, which is modeled after Mag Faithlienn in the original legend. Ruaine Hall--or the Hall of Red and Green--is a great cavern decorated with pine and holly boughs and lit with hundreds of torches to keep back the gloom. It is a magic but merry place, full of danger and laughter and, of course, the mad-cap little people. I thoroughly enjoyed expanding on this setting, which had featured in an earlier novel of mine.

But then it was time to move on to less hospitable demesnes.

In its day, Etalpalli was a beautiful demesne known as "the City of Clouds." Back then, it was full of tall, red-stone towers grown over with thick green ivy and flowers. The Faeries who dwelled there had magnificent feathered wings of many colors, and they sang with voices as sweet as birds.

When we come to Etalpalli in this novel, however, it is burned beyond recognition.

The green growth is long since gone from the blackened towers, and the city itself looks like so many raw, rotten teeth tearing at a reddened sky. It is an evil place, for it was destroyed by its own queen. The ruined streets are no longer stable; they uproot and shift around like a moving labyrinth, proving deadly to any who enter in. The city is hungry, ready to swallow up the living with a ravenous fury akin to that of its mistress, the Dragonwitch. She, like her kingdom, was once fair and lovely. But she has taken dragon-fire inside, and all the good has been burned away.

Etalpalli was a difficult location to write. I started out trying simply to write about it as it is now, burned and destroyed. But I soon realized that to create a convincing "sense of place," I needed to know what it was like before its destruction. So I backtracked and spent time writing about Etalpalli of old, and the people who lived there, and what life might have been like for them long ago. Most of this work did not end up in the final manuscript. But that doesn't matter! A great deal of my work is intended not to be read, but to support that which is read. The formation of every one of my novels includes several thousands of words that will never be seen by the reading public.

The third location I want to mention in this article is the only non-Faerie country we see. Most of Starflower is set in the Far World of Faerie, but my heroine, Starflower herself, is a mortal. And her nation was the most interesting of all to explore!

Starflower comes from a place she knows only as the Land. It is a tribal country, split up under many rulers known as elders. But her father is the Eldest, and he rules the Land, making Starflower a princess . . . of a sort.

I wanted Starflower's homeland to contrast starkly with the Faerie kingdoms we see in the rest of the novel. While those are otherworldly, hers needed to be dirt-bound and full of death and hard realities. But I also did not want anyone to confuse her world with the standard "Medieval-fantasy" settings found in much of current fantasy fiction. Starflower's culture is not at all Western, and it is also very primitive in many ways.

So for inspiration I turned to my husband, who was born in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is a fascinating, ancient country full of histories and dramas and cultures unlike anything I knew. I barely scratched the surface as I researched for my novel, but what I read about thrilled me.

Thus the Land became a jungle kingdom, full of wild animals and rivers and mountains.  The people eat fruits and vegetables that we might consider "exotic" but which are as common as apples and carrots to them.

I find it a difficult balance, creating a sense of place in a story. I want to give only enough detail to make the setting feel vibrant and convincing . . . but never so much that the setting distracts from the story. They must work together. But I believe that Starflower's home, the Hidden Land Behind the Mountain, turned into the perfect blend of cultural details and receding backdrop for the drama.

A "sense of place" is one of the most important and most difficult achievements for which a successful writer works. But it is so worth the effort involved!

So tell me, fellow writers, what settings have you created that you think worked the best? That established a strong "sense of place" for you and your readers?

Author Anne Elisabeth Stengl

Anne Elisabeth Stengl makes her home in Raleigh, North Carolina, where she lives with her husband, Rohan, a passel of cats, and one long-suffering dog. When she's not writing, she enjoys Shakespeare, opera, and tea, and studies piano, painting, and pastry baking. She studied illustration at Grace College and English literature at Campbell University. She is the author of HEARTLESS, VEILED ROSE, MOONBLOOD, and STARFLOWER, with DRAGONWITCH due to release in 2013. HEARTLESS and VEILED ROSE have each been honored with a Christy Award.

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1 comment:

  1. thanks for sharing the behind the scenes details about creating a place/setting. loved it!

    I'm still learning how to think outside the box, go beyond the traditional European medieval fantasy.

    It's awesome you've been able to draw on your husband's experiences. My husband is from Zambia. I'm not sure I've specifically borrowed anything as of yet, but when I first started out writing I used words in his language for place names.


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