Setting is the time and place of the action of a story. The setting of a story—not only the physical locale, but also the time of day, or year, or century—may or may not be symbolic. Sometimes the setting is lightly sketched, presented only because the story had to take place somewhere and at some time.
Mood is the feeling, or atmosphere, that a writer creates for the reader. The mood of a work could be described as sinister, cheerful, exciting, dreamlike, or sentimental.
How would you describe the relationship between mood and setting in this story? What connections do you see between the setting and the emotional state of the characters? What do you think the author conveys about the setting of this story by simply describing it as “the Middle of Nowhere”?
Perhaps the Middle of Nowhere’s precise distance from a lake or other body of water, from the nearest pharmacy, playground, or shopping center, is largely irrelevant. Perhaps all you need to know is that the Middle of Nowhere is far, far from a Good School, far from the Golf Outing that Reunion Weekend and that, well past the black and white billboard that says HELL IS REAL, there is a gravel road. Now add precise words and sensory details that will make the setting come alive.
This gravel road leads up a hill.
The reader may also want to consider the expression “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
What does it mean to you?
Now draw a house/a tree/a person.
Though the forest green four-wheel-drive sport utility vehicle (SUV) was ostensibly designed for minimally rugged conditions such as these, James, a 26-year-old White (non-Hispanic) male, simply refused to go any further. He brought the spacious, high-ceilinged vehicle to a halt right where the concrete ended and the gravel began. He turned off the engine. The license plate on the vehicle featured a bald eagle and a billowing American flag on its upper-left; on the right, fireworks exploded over a skyline.
Now they had gone too far.
He got out.
“Do you see that?” James asks, pointing at the gravel, jabbing at a crushed can. “If that hits the tire the wrong way, it just goes pop.”
“It’s gravel,” you say.
“If it was your car, we could drive it wherever you wanted,” James says, now eager to fight as only former roommates, who have been driving for hours on a hot day, can. “This is my car!” James says.
REUNION WEEKEND, a placard resting on the dashboard of his car reads.
Everyone else was at the Golf Outing.
We had other plans.
It had felt vaguely illicit, like cutting class, leaving the dorm at dawn in the hopes of being back in time for the Dinner as a Class, leaving behind the daffodils, the fern garden, the wood-paneled walls, THE EPISCOPAL CHURCH WELCOMES YOU, driving for a long time on the freeway, through cloverleaf and trumpet interchanges, 76, then a long time just getting into the country, SPEED CHECKED BY RADAR, a good hour after HELL IS REAL, then finally turning into a place you could barely describe as a hamlet, a place we shall simply call the Middle of Nowhere.
Try not to scream.
How could we come this far and not see it?
INTRODUCING YOU, THE AUTHOR.
Think about the feelings you have as you read the paragraphs— the sights, sounds, and physical sensations that the language conveys. How important do you think time and place are to this story? To what degree does the setting shape the events portrayed in this work of fiction? Think about irony as a contrast between appearance and actuality. How is the narrator’s view of “a Good School” ironic? Are these authorial interludes truly necessary? How do they serve the story? Why not dive directly into scenes? Cut long speeches and sentences. Replace unreal dialogue with contractions and informal expressions as appropriate for each character. Start with that woman on the plane saying, “That is such a good school.”
“That’s a good school,” the bouffanted stranger sitting beside you had said as the plane began its initial descent.
“That’s a great school,” her husband agreed.
“Another word for military prison,” she said, looking up from her crossword puzzle.
“Brig,” you said.
“See, Hank,” she said. “It is a good school.”
“Back for the big game?” Hank asked.
“You ride that thing all over, huh?” she asked looking at the skateboard at your feet.
“I see kids on TV flopping around. They look like they’re having a good time. Doesn’t it hurt when they fall? You know, Paul Rodriguez’s son is one of them now. I’ve seen him on TV.”
In the airport for the first time since graduation, you pass the Steak ’N Shake.
You find a pay phone, pull out the napkin with the airline routes crisscrossing the country and the number scrawled on it. As the phone rings, travelers pass who appear to be happy. Travelers pass who appear to be sad. Some speak of sports and athletics. Others listen to music on headphones. Yearly plane arrivals and departures from the airport number 350,000.
“District Attorney’s office,” the voice says brightly. “I’ll see if he’s back from lunch yet.”
You need the address. To that end, you’ve readied some spiel about seeking closure.
But mercifully, the District Attorney just says, “Okay. Here it is. You ready?”
He does not ask why you want the address, therefore not compelling you to say closure, though even so you find yourself saying blah, blah, blah and the college community could not have found closure without your tireless blah, blah, blah and given that it’s reunion weekend, it just stirs up a lot of blah, blah, blah.
“It means a lot to me too,” he says.
“What’s the status of the case currently?”
“He has filed an appeal with the Supreme Court. They may hear the case. They may not.”
“Is there any chance he’ll be set free?”
“He’s not getting out.”
“Does it still, may I ask, occupy you occasionally? Was there something, maybe, different about this case?”
“I can’t stop thinking about it. The other murders that I worked on, they all had a reason. Drugs. Domestic dispute. But this… this was so senseless. I think when it hit me was when they brought in all her stuff from her dorm, in two big boxes, and it was just lying there on the table. All her stuff.”
“You writing a book or something?”
“Well, if you do go out there, watch yourself. It’s real remote.”
Why don’t we end the scene there? From the characters’ speech, the reader must make inferences about their relationship and events they have experienced. It sounds like they are talking about some crime or something. In essence the setting is everywhere and nowhere, just as the characters are meant to be everyone and no one. Maybe evoke the smell of the cheese steaks wafting through the concourse one more time at the end of this paragraph.
According to the most recent census, James is currently the most common male first name in the U.S. population. So we shall call the former roommate “James,” to let the reader know that he is supposed to be something of an everyman, John Q. Public. After calling the District Attorney, you call James and tell him you are here.
James has a long, thin face, an exceptionally pale complexion, carefully parted light blond hair, wire-frame glasses that give him the air of a young-but-ever-so-stern headmaster. (In fact, he teaches Greek and History at a co-ed private preparatory academy. At the end of each semester, he concludes his history classes by saying, “Will Western civilization survive? Tune in next year.”)
He says you looked like you were on a yacht. (You were wearing a white pocket square, a blue blazer.)
“Did you call the DA?” he asks as he pulls his SUV out of the parking lot.
“Yes,” you say.
“Did you get it?” he asks.
“Yes,” you say.
His apartment was bare save for an eagle wall plaque. A symbol is a person, place, object, or activity that stands for something beyond itself. Cultural symbols are those that have meanings for people in the same culture. To many people in the United States, for example, an eagle symbolizes freedom and strength. Over a dinner of burgers and fries, James, a self-described “paleo-con” who believes America could heal itself if only it returned to its agrarian/Constitutional roots, bitterly recounted his brother’s recent rejection from a prestigious doctoral program.
“They told him he was the perfect candidate, from 1955.”
“IN THE WOODS IS PERPETUAL YOUTH. IN THE WOODS, WE RETURN TO REASON AND FAITH. THERE I FEEL THAT NOTHING CAN BEFALL ME IN LIFE—NO DISGRACE, NO CALAMITY WHICH NATURE CANNOT REPAIR,” WROTE RALPH WALDO EMERSON. BUT NOTICE HOW DISILLUSIONED THE AUTHOR’S TONE IS. QUITE A STARK CONTRAST TO THE BOUNDLESS OPTIMISM OFTEN ASSOCIATED WITH RALPH WALDO EMERSON AND AMERICAN TRANSCENDENTALISM GENERALLY. YOU MIGHT WISH TO THINK ABOUT HOW THE AUTHOR, IN MARRYING THESE DIFFERENT TONES, INVITES THE READER TO COMPARE AND CONTRAST DIFFERENT VISIONS OF OUR REPUBLIC.
“Okay. We’ll walk.”
It is humid, and the air clings to your skin like some vivid simile. James is wearing khaki shorts, white tennis shoes, and a white polo. You and James proceed up the hill.
Suddenly, a lone White (non-Hispanic) male appears astride an all-terrain vehicle (ATV). He’d emerged from the property at the base of the hill, from the fallow field with the rusted gate.
He stops and stares. This individual looks to be in his early to mid-twenties, medium build, brown hair. Like James, he is sweating profusely.
“Oh, hello,” you say. “Our, uh, friend used to live up here.”
“Is it alright if we leave the car down there?” James asks.
“Thank you,” you say and reach to shake his hand, a gesture he tentatively reciprocates before driving back into the property with the rusted gate and the fallow field.
“You realize he knew you were lying,” James says. “Let’s make this quick. They could strip the car in seconds.”
The two of you continue up the hill. It is hot. But don’t just say, “It is hot.” Similes and metaphors can make your writing clear and interesting. For example, a writer literally describing a passenger on the bow of a ship on a winter night might say, “The wind in her face was strong and cold.” A figurative description might say, “The wind cut her face like a knife.” Likewise, you could say the road was as white as a scar cutting across the face of the forest, though that might be a bit much, more than a little heavy-handed.
“The map says it’s supposed to be in about a quarter of a mile,” James says. “God, can you imagine? She must have been scared out of her wits.”
“To death,” the author adds.
“This place is freaky enough during the day. At night it would have been insane,” James says. “If you think there is any chance she came here willingly, you’re wrong.”
“There’s something in the literature called a sub-intentioned death.”
“There’s something in the literature called you’re an idiot. Look at this place.”
“Did you tell your wife you were coming here?”
“Are you out of your mind? Did you?”
“Good. No one needs to ever know.”
About 10 minutes into the walk, you come upon a canyon into which a car has tumbled and still lies upside down, though there is no disgrace, no calamity, that nature cannot repair.
“I’m thinking we passed it,” James says. “The map says it’s a quarter of a mile. It’s probably that thing we saw before the last turn. So you saw it. We’re good. Let’s get out of here.”
“We’ve come this far.”
SUBHEADING THAT SOMEHOW REFERENCES SKATEBOARDING. MAYBE JUST MENTION SOME SKATEBOARD COMPANIES, SUCH AS ANTIHERO, ALIEN, GIRL.
James reluctantly agrees to spend one more hour looking for it. The Golf Outing will be ending, and he doesn’t want to miss the Dinner as a Class.
You walk back down the road and approach of one of the modest single-story homes. There you come upon a mini-ramp in the yard, partially hidden by some bushes. Yet another of the sport’s lonely colonial outposts. There are skate shoes on the doormat, and a skateboard leans against the side of the patio. ZERO, the board says in black and white. The front door is open. “Anybody home?” James calls out. No answer. And yes, that was the obligatory poignant skateboarding moment, and in a recursive fashion, we’ll return to the ramp toward the end of this story of loss and redemption for an epiphany.
COLLEGE AS SANCTUARY,
PROVING GROUND, AND MILIEU.
The residences in this sparsely populated rural area are few and far between, and, indeed you see no signs of life until you see two legs on a porch swing. The legs belong to a White (non-Hispanic) male, approximately 80 to 100 years old, wearing denim trousers, red suspenders, and a red mesh-backed ball cap emblazoned with a tractor company’s logo. Through black-frame glasses he stared into space. The porch offered breathtaking views of mud and dust, beautifully landscaped with some broken toilet bowls and other plumbing equipment scattered about the arid, untilled land. Over the past 50 years, U.S. farm population has decreased greatly, so that by the previous decade, only about 8 million persons live on farms.
“We’re lost,” James said.
“My name is Clark,” the man said.
“We’re looking for this address,” James said.
“That’s over the hill yonder,” Clark said. He literally said “yonder.”
“We were just there, but we couldn’t find it,” James said.
“There’s a road, then there’s a hill, after that there’s a trailer,” the man replied.
“Our friend used to, uh, live there. Have you heard of Sally Smith?”
“Sure ’nough,” he said.
“That’s why we want to see the trailer.”
“I can take you there,” said Clark, who moved in a dimension of time all his own.
James discreetly moved his chin back and forth.
“What?” you whisper.
“He could kidnap us,” James whispers.
“I think we can take him,” you whisper.
“He could take us to other people who could do it.”
Clark, who had been so slow and deliberate, suddenly became spry. He sprang up from the swing and said, “Get in.”
SOME ELEMENTS OF FICTION.
With a deliberateness consonant with his manner of speaking, Clark drove a red pickup truck that matched his red hat. The author sat alone in the open bed of the truck as it slowly moved into the woods where there is youth, where we return to reason and faith. You couldn’t hear what Clark and James were saying to each other in the cab. You could just see the back of their heads and, occasionally, their profiles, their moving lips.
To finally be on the road she would have driven, to see the sights she would have seen, being on the back of that truck looking up at the trees at that moment as the truck headed into the woods and clouds of dust trailed behind was gnarly. Not exactly gnarly in the sense of being extremely difficult, risky, and challenging, nor exactly gnarly as in extraordinarily good or pleasurable.
It was just gnarly.
Clark drove slowly, then stopped the car in front of a stagnant pond.
“They drained this after they found her. What was her name again?” he asked.
“Sally,” James said. What could the character who you think is most to blame have done differently to make the situation turn out better? Why do you ask? Think about the narrator’s feeling like a monster at the end of the story.
“They thought he might have thrown the gun in there.”
We got out and looked at the pond.
“Let’s take the rest of the tour,” Clark said.
Reunion is a time to reconnect with familiar faces and places, and above all to catch up with old friends. For this next leg of the excursion, the author joined James and the driver in the cab. The gravel road was narrow, hilly. How might you contrast the “Golf Outing” mentioned earlier in the story with this scene? Write a story in your journal from the perspective of one of the golf balls.
Clark put a cassette on.
Good night, Irene, Good night, Irene, Good night, Irene. I’ll see you in my dreams… Sometimes I live in the country…
Then it was as though the pickup truck were moving up and down the hills in perfect harmony with each song and the lilting cadences of the music were the same cadences with which Clark drove and talked and it was as though the singer himself was wryly remarking on the scene, the mood and setting, and Time itself was slowly swaying to his tune, and it was as though the 20-year-old White (non-Hispanic) female decedent we are calling Sally, had finally found her proper eulogist.
Sometimes I live in the town. Sometimes I have a great notion to jump in the river and drown…
“Who is this?” the author asked.
“Good, ain’t he? These days it’s all sequined sophistication,” Clark ruefully replied.
“What other news has happened around here?” the author asked.
Letters never bring me the touch of your hand… Letters have no arms dear to hold me… Kisses on paper are so cold…
“We get channel 5. They haven’t had electric up here that long,” Clark said.
You’re the gossip of the town. Pick me up on the way down… When their glamour starts to bore you, come on back where you belong…
Clark pointed to a red barn.
“He stole guns from my friend there. Then, when he was fleeing, he almost sideswiped him. They caught him, though, I guess, when they found her car in front of the trailer. There’s a lot of trailers tucked in them there hills,” Clark said. He literally said “them there hills.”
As you tumble to the ground, pick me up on your way down…
The car went still deeper into the forest.
“There it is,” Clark said. He stopped the car. He turned off the tape.
There it was.
So as to preclude vehicular entry, someone had installed two jagged concrete cylinders in front of a narrow trail leading up to a bluff. With orange spray paint someone had written STAY on one cylinder and AWAY on another.
It was an eerie monument.
Clark and James hung back by the car. From the road you couldn’t actually see where what had happened had happened, the scene of the senseless crime. You couldn’t actually see the trailer or whether it was even still up there. You could just see STAY AWAY. James and our tour guide gave no sign that they were ready or willing to explore the property, nor did they display any eagerness to engage whoever might reside there now. So you, the author, just stood there deciding what to do, as the two men, young and old, hung back by the car.
Everyone else was at the Golf Outing.
How long did you stand there?
Long enough to lament being at a rare loss for words. What can you say about a girl that died? She had everything going for her, a smile that could light up a room.
Long enough for a flashback. Will you help me with the dishes?…
Long enough for you to hear James call from the car, “You ready?”
Long enough to remind the reader that this is a work of metafiction and as such “rejects all of the traditions of the conventional novel and takes as its subject the very act of writing fiction and the difficulties of using language to reflect a reality that in itself may be unknowable.” (Just as what happened that night that ended here will remain forever unknowable. But then she wasn’t just some metafictional experiment, was she?)
Long enough to insert a lyrical, hauntingly elegiac riff about how staring at STAY AWAY brought you back to the summer you quit skateboarding and turned 16, the summer you wandered into this store, Young Man’s Fancy, looking for this jacket you’d seen in some magazine, and how the clerk said, “You’re looking for a duffle coat. Try downtown.” And how you tried downtown but somehow took a wrong turn and ended up here, in the Middle of Nowhere.
“Is he going to be there forever?” Clark asked.