Crime writer Karen Herbert says setting is one of the tools in an author’s tool kit
Setting is one of the tools in an author’s kit. Those of us who studied literature at school have all written essays on setting analysing how it contributes to mood and atmosphere, signalling what we can expect to happen in a scene. In Kate Atkinson’s book When Will There Be Good News? we know immediately that something bad is about to happen.
The heat rising up from the tarmac seemed to get trapped between the thick hedges that towered above their heads like battlements.
‘Oppressive,’ their mother said. They felt trapped too.
The television series Fortitude also uses a forbidding setting, reminding us that the human residents of the Arctic Circle town need to stick together to stay alive. The ice, snow, cold, and roaming polar bears make the fracturing of their relationships ominous. The viewer flinches with every argument, slammed door, and person who stalks out into the icy wind, knowing that the characters are at risk when they are alone outside. In the movie Fargo, setting interplays with character in a different way. The cold, flat landscape contrasts with the warm, consistently nice Minnesota residents. We viewers know we can rely on them to do the right thing.
Setting can also be a powerful tool in fiction when a character has a strong emotional bond with the story’s natural or built environment. In psychology, this is called place attachment. Strong place attachment can occur when a place has important physical qualities. These might be practical qualities, such as being a source of shelter, water or livelihood. Think about the shack in Tim Winton’s book The Shepherd’s Hut. The shack is a place of refuge for the exiled pastor, Fintan MacGillis. We see its isolation and deprivation, but also its shelter and nourishment.
A setting might also have cultural or spiritual qualities, such as landscape features that are the location of Australian Indigenous creation stories. In Tara June Winch’s award-winning book The Yield, Massacre Plains has deep significance for the central character August Gondiwindi and her grandfather Albert. It is a place that has nourished their family through generations with grain for bread, fish, and shelter.
Unsurprisingly, strong place attachment also arises out of the experience a person has of a place. Places where people experience profound transformation, restoration, or even trauma can attract strong feelings of attachment. The house at the centre of Sofie Laguna’s Miles Franklin–longlisted Infinite Splendours is a place where the central character has experienced joy, love, horror, pain and deep loneliness. The story circles back to the house again and again, where the rooms provide a setting for him to work through his anguish in outbursts of creativity and desolate contemplation of ending his own life.
In my first book, The River Mouth, country-town nurse and mother, Sandra, is deeply attached to her home and its location on the cliffs above the river mouth despite what she knows happened there and the secrets it holds. She sees, hears and smells the ocean. She is restored by the feeling of salt on her skin and the wind against her face and she yearns for the brush of the waves against her toes. She feels lost when she goes on a camping trip inland, unanchored from the coastline.
I based the setting for The River Mouth on a stretch of water where I roamed with my sisters when we were children. It was a place where we could explore unobserved. Where we could stare into water the colour of the rum that adults mixed with their Coke. Where we could smell the damp, nose-itching smell of butted-out cigarettes on the floor of limestone caves. Where the sound of traffic and human voices faded behind us as we walked single file along bush tracks. Where we banged our shins and scuffed the heels of our hands falling down and climbing up riverbanks. It was a heady place, with unstable rocks, snakes and spiders, and hairy caterpillar nests. It was also forbidden. Who knew who camped out or loitered in those caves or under the bridge?
Like Sandra, I yearn for the river mouth. I dream about it, can hear the waves, smell the swamp, and taste the sour grass without trying. When I visit (I still say I am going home), I hold my face to the wind and let the salt dry on my skin. Place attachment, for me, is a real thing and deeply connected to my years of roaming with my sisters in a wild place, unobserved. I hope readers feel that connection when they read The River Mouth and are perhaps taken back to their own connected places as they read.
Karen Herbert’s debut crime novel, The River Mouth, is available in all good bookstores and online.