Friday, February 8, 2013

Setting: What’s Unique about the Wild West? by @JacquieRogers

Many genre writers start with setting. Yes, they say they start with characters, or with situations, but the truth is, if you’re writing a Regency, it’ll be set in England between 1811 to 1820, give or take. If you’re writing a Scottish Medieval, then it has to be set in Scotland between the 5th and 15th centuries. If you’re writing a Western, it’ll be set west of the Mississippi, usually sometime after the first wagon train went to Oregon and before automobiles. If you’re writing to the commercial market, the setting needs to be marketable.

So yes, many of us do start with setting.

Setting is far more than a time and a place. Woven properly into a story, it becomes a character in itself. Louis L’Amour was a master at this. How did setting come into play in the first book in my Hearts of Owyhee series, Much Ado About Marshals, which is set in 1885 Owyhee County, Idaho Territory? The seeds of the idea came to me when we visited Idaho to see relatives and while there, made some research trips to local sites.

I grew up in Owyhee County, so I’d been to the former boom town, Silver City, many times, but as I stood in front of the Idaho Hotel taking in the view, the huge bank safe sparked my imagination. What if a desperate bumbling cowhand botches up a bank robbery, is saved by his sensible friend, but then his friend is shot? Hmmm.

Setting and character were on equal footing at this point—couldn’t have one without the other. Why? Because the bank and its proximity to the other buildings in Silver City were firmly a part of the story. Besides, the sensible friend is Cole Richards and he has a ranch on Sinker Creek. The bumbling cowhand is Bosco Kunkle and he’s Cole’s best friend. Okay, so I moved geography around a little. Writers can do this.

As I contemplated that scenario, we stopped by Our Lady Queen of Heaven Catholic Church in Oreana. Even though I grew up not far from there, I never knew that the church was originally built as a general store by stonemasons John Pierson and Jim Kelly, the best stonemasons in the area. A store! It’s a good-sized rock building and was actually built later than my story is set, probably 1888, but is typical of the rock buildings constructed during the 1870s and 1880s. My book is set in 1885 so I felt comfortable using the building.
General Mercantile converted to
Our Lady Queen of Heaven Church
Oreana, Idaho

(To read more about the history of the church in Oreana, visit St. Paul's website.  The graphic on the right is from there.)

Aha! In my imagination, I saw a vivacious young woman run down the steps, carrying a package. She has a purpose and no one can stop her. Her name is Daisy Gardner. The store is Gardner’s Mercantile, owned and operated by her father. An aside note—I’ve always thought Oreana was the prettiest name for a town, and so I envisioned a lively little town full of fun characters. It was the perfect place for Bosco to take Cole for medical care.

That little rock building behind the store-now-church?  It was originally a saloon—extremely small, with room for maybe three customers.  Short ones.  I was told that men came in to buy their drinks but usually went outside to socialize and play cards while imbibing.

And no, the real Oreana isn’t on the way to Sinker Creek from Silver City, so I moved it, too. Literary license, you know. Bustling? Hardly. (See Google Maps satellite photo.  Yes, that's the whole town for real.)

So let’s say the editor wanted this story set in Boston. First problem is law and order—Boston had some, but Owyhee County wasn’t nearly as “civilized.” (Many would contend that’s still true, but in my opinion it depends on your definition.) At least 50% of the events could never have happened in Boston or any metropolitan area. Worse, Cole would never have been accepted by the city fathers, and Daisy would’ve been ostracized by society for her behavior. This story simply can’t be moved.

The point of all this is to not underestimate the value of setting. When well written, setting emphasizes conflict and every aspect of a character’s decisions. Writers: how do you use setting to the best effect in your stories? Readers: how does setting influence your perception of the characters? Would Hondo be the same character if the story took place in New Orleans or Paris?

Free Book!!!
One commenter will win a free Kindle copy of Much Ado About Marshals. Also, if anyone who sends a message to jacquierogers @ telling me that you’ve posted a review and where, I’ll send you a Kindle copy of your choice of the second book in the series, Much Ado About Madams or the third book, Much Ado About Mavericks.

Drawing will be February 9 at 9pm Pacific Time. Please leave your email address in your comment. Thanks!

Jacquie Rogers, author of the
Hearts of Owyhee  series
#1 Much Ado About Marshals (RttA Winner)
#2 Much Ado About Madams
#3 Much Ado About Mavericks
A short story: Willow, Wish For Me (Merlin’s Destiny #1)

Visit Jacquie:
Website * Twitter * Facebook * Romancing The West * Blog


Caroline Clemmons said...

Jacquie, you know Cole is one of my all-time favorite heroes! I have told the world how great this entire series is--but I don't remember if I left a review on Amazon. If not, please accept my apology. I'll check today. Best wishes for continued success with your wonderful series.

Devon Matthews said...

Terrific post, Jacquie! Literary license is exactly the reason I always set my people down and have their main orbit in a fictional town. That way, I can "build" the place any way I want, even burn it down if necessary.

Don't enter me in the drawing. I already have your fabulous books (love those covers) on my Kindle, alas, still tbr. Best of luck with the series!

Gerri Bowen said...

Great post, Jacquie, and I so agree. I have all your books, so please don't enter me in the contest. :)

Jacquie Rogers said...

Thanks, Caroline. Cole kept me interested the entire time I was writing him because the poor guy had to deal with living a lie, when he's honest to the point of altruism. What a dilemma. And then he had to contend with Daisy and Bosco. But he managed to hang on for the ride. :)

Jacquie Rogers said...

Always before, I've used fictional towns. Actually, Oreana is fictional, too, I just used the name. I think the only businesses in the real town were the store and saloon, and I don't think the population was ever over 50, even in its heyday. And I did burn the bank. LOL

Jacquie Rogers said...

Oh, wait, it was the confectionary that burned--but they rebuilt.

Jacquie Rogers said...

Thanks, Gerri. You have some excellent books out, too! They're on my TBR--not enough hours in the day to get to pleasure reading, unfortunately, but I'll get them read soon.

Wendy Delaney said...

Wonderful post, and your point about selecting the appropriate setting couldn't be more true. Owyhee County is the perfect backdrop for this Much Ado About Marshals. Daisy couldn't have been the feisty protagonist in Boston that she is in Oreana. She and all the major characters couldn't have been themselves in the "big city" and all the secondary characters that populated the town? They'd be completely different, more influenced by "society." And I agree with Caroline--Cole was a terrific hero. Bosco couldn't have been a funnier sidekick, and Daisy was absolutely endearing as a detective wannabe.
Can you tell that I loved this book? :)

Diane D White said...

I always get a new and refreshing POV from you. And you are so right about the setting coming first. Because whereever you are when the story bug bites, it is caused by your surroundings of the moment.

Great post, as usual!

Kristy McCaffrey said...

You're so right about setting. And it can be quite a bit of work for the writer to get it right (even when using a fictional town--it still must be based on what is the norm of the time). In my second book I used a real town (Las Vegas, NM). I visited it and found a local historical book regarding the layout at different times. I love this book and it can't be found on Amazon. Only writers get excited about such things! I have often picked books to read based on settings so I think they are definitely an extra character. Has anyone seen the Ryan Reynolds/Sandra Bullock movie "The Proposal"? The setting of Alaska is a huge element of the story and really drives this point home.
I'd love to be entered in the drawing (if you haven't drawn yet) as I haven't yet read any of your books.


Alison E. Bruce said...

Another fine post you've kept me awake with. ;)

I couldn't resist reading about setting since I'm of the map drawing set who wants to know where everything is in town. I like creating my own locations but referencing real places so my towns/cities/farms fit the place their set in.

Great stuff. Really must go to bed now though. Really.

Meg said...

Love love love Cole - you always infuse such great humor in your books! And you're right about the western setting. LOVE IT! and I love researching for the details. :-D Keep on Much Ado'ing!