Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Exxxxtreme Setting

The Philippines is one of the most beautiful places I've ever been. I lived there, in the city of Dumaguete, for a summer when I was in college. The water is aquamarine and crystal clear. The beaches are white and there are coral reefs off seemingly every coast. There are palm trees, thick forest, mountains.

When it was time to return to college for my senior year, I toyed with not coming back. I wanted to stay, I loved the people, I felt I was doing important work. But I knew I could never live in Dumaguete permanently. It's one of the most beautiful places I've ever been, but also one of the most extreme. When swimming I looked out for sting rays, sea urchins, and sharks. I couldn't go outside for five minutes without slathering myself with sunscreen and reapplying every hour. I slept under a mosquito net, and the Filipinos warned me of Dengue fever if I was stung. The Philippines has an intense monsoon season, floods, volcanoes. 60% of the people in Dumaguete lived under the US definition of the poverty line. One of the islands I visited was later visited by terrorists who captured a group of American tourists. For all its beauty, perhaps because of all its beauty, it's an extreme place.

And that makes the Philippines a great setting for a story. Candy Gourlay's debut novel, TALL STORY, tells the stories of two characters, one in the Philippines, the other in London (see my review here). Watch her book trailer (one of the best I've seen) to learn more about it:

TALL STORY Book Trailer from Candy Gourlay on Vimeo.

Another setting recently that has blown me away is in the book STOLEN by Lucy Christopher (a Bath Spa tutor and PhD student! Read my review here). It's the story of a kidnapping in the Australian outback, where there is no where to run, desert for miles, and the only greenery houses poisonous snakes.

Setting is intrinsic to both of these stories. I can't imagine either author started the novel without knowing its setting. It determines plot and characters. And while reading both books, I was shocked to look out my window and see a rainy English field; they had transported me well outside of Bristol.

Of course there are different types of extreme settings. Keren David's WHEN I WAS JOE is set in a diverse, inner-city London (see my review here). It drives her story of gangs and knife violence. Keren has blogged about some of the actual place-inspirations for her setting here.

There are plenty of novels not set in extreme places which tell amazing stories. But part of why I read is to be transported, to see another world. Perhaps that's why I'm a lover of fantasy novels as well.

Is place important to your reading? To your writing? What extreme settings have inspired you?


  1. These are good questions! I don't notice the lack of setting if there's a strong plot to pull me in, but if I start to think about it, it becomes a liability. Right now I'm reading a YA paranormal set in the American Southwest, but I'm not getting much local flavor from it. It's an imaginative story but aside from the layout of the town, it might as well be in Missouri.

    On the other hand, place is almost a character in some books. Libba Bray's Going Bovine and Laura Manivong's Escaping the Tiger both come to mind.

  2. Thanks, Anne!

    Ohhh, both Bray and Manivong's books are on my book wish list. I hadn't heard Bray's had such a strong setting--now I'm even more excited for it.

    I don't mind so much if setting isn't an issue when it seems to be set in places familiar to me, the midwest, school, etc. But if it's set some place like the American Southwest, which I'm not overly familiar with, I really want to be grounded in the place.


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