A Solid Sense of Setting

March 27th, 2013 by Terra | Filed under Talking with Other Authors.

As part of the NYC Teen Author Festival, I was honored to lead a panel about girl protagonists in YA and what influences them. On the panel were Jen Calonita, Deborah Heiligman, Hilary Weisman Graham, Kody Keplinger, Amy Spalding, Katie Sise, and Kathryn Williams–a big group with a lot of subject matter potential! There was so much to talk about (parents, peers, romance, friend breakups, etc.), that of course we didn’t get to cover everything, though we did discuss quite a lot. One of the topics I was really interested in getting to (but didn’t) was setting and how where you live (or where you’re visiting) can influence your story. For myself, setting plays a huge role in my books, especially because many of them are set right here in my own backyard of Decatur, GA. Since all these books took place in such a great range of places, I wondered if setting was just as important to my fellow panelists, and I decided to take the question to email, after our festival conversation was over.

Kathryn Williams (whose new book is Pizza, Love, and Other Stuff That Made Me Famous) had this to say:
As far as setting . . . it’s figured heavily in all my books so far. The first one about a girl from the North who moves South (fish out of water tale); the second one taking place at summer camp, where the setting was almost a character in itself; and Pizza is set mostly in California, the epicenter of the local/fresh/organic food movement, which influences my character Sophie’s cooking style (and identity).

Since Kathryn’s novel The Lost Summer, is a book about summer camp and the intense things that can go on there (similar to my own book, The Summer of Firsts and Lasts), I asked her more about the camp setting and her feelings about it:

I went to a small summer camp in southwest Virginia for ten years, first as a camper and then as a counselor, and it shaped me so much as a person — both the setting (I am a true mountain girl) and the people. I still stay in touch with many of them and go to reunions at the camp. I love the “place away” feel of camp, the freedom it offers within this very protected atmosphere. My book is a coming-of-age story, so it’s really about the (sometimes dramatic — it is a book, after all!) self-discovery that takes place in this setting.

If any of you have read (and liked) SoFaL, and haven’t read The Lost Summer, or if you have strong feelings about a camp in your own life, I definitely suggest you pick this one up!

Furthering the conversation about the specialness of place, here’s what Katie Sise, author of the forthcoming The Boyfriend App (due out April 30th) had to say about her book’s specific locale:

The Boyfriend App is set in South Bend, Indiana, just by the University of Notre Dame, which is where I went to school. The college plays a big part for my main character; her father always loved the university even though he couldn’t afford to go there himself. She used to roam the campus with him for hours. She returns for the first time since his death during the course of the book… and a few more things happen involving Notre Dame, but I don’t want to spoil it in case you guys get a chance to read it!!!

Last but not least, the fabulous Jen Calonita (author of THE BELLES series, which finishes up with The Grass Is Always Greener on April 16th), had this to say about her setting of Emerald Cove, and how it influences her story and her characters:
You know how you can become addicted to a show because of where it’s set? You don’t even know the characters yet, but you just love the juiciness of the setting. I’m thinking Nashville, Once Upon a Time’s Storybrooke, and The O.C.’s, well, O.C.! That’s how I felt about the setting for the Belles series. I actually had the town laid out in my head way before I knew all the ins and outs of Izzie and Mira yet. Emerald Cove is this beachy town in a beautiful area of North Carolina known as the Crystal Coast. The area is privileged, beautiful, and full of history. Even though the story is set down in North Carolina, I actually modeled it after some small coastal towns in New Jersey that I visit a lot in the summer and my best friend grew up in. I was drawn to the fact that her town was really posh and wealthy and five minutes away, there were towns that were anything but that. The interesting thing was that teens on both sides of the track frequented that wealthy town and hung out there. And that got me to thinking: What if I had a town like that in a novel and that town rocked my characters’ worlds? From that point I began to think of the girl who grew up in the town–a senator’s daughter named Mira who wanted for nothing–and the girl who was raised with nothing–a spunky teen named Izzie–and how their worlds collided. I layered Emerald Cove with as many Southern details as I could think of–the town’s rich sense of history and pride, the traditions, the cotillions, the junior league, and the school clubs that ran the town, and the parties! Oooh, those parties! They set the stage for everything in Emerald Cove and they really shaped the characters as well. How did Izzie fit into this world that was nothing like the one she grew up in in Harborside? How did Mira handle having to always be on, and beautiful, and the perfect Southern belle when she was so insecure? These were the questions that kept me up at night–that still keep me up at night–when I think about my Belles and how I’ve shaped them around a fictional world called Emerald Cove that I so wish I could actually visit.

As you can see, whether I’m in New York or my hometown, a sense of place is extremely interesting to me. Thanks, Katie, Kathryn and Jen for sharing your thoughts on setting and how it affects both your characters and your books, and I’ll be looking forward to seeing each of you, no matter where we are! 

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