Setting or Story?

Right now, I’m taking a break between drafts of my mess-in-progress to fill some research craters in my story. I know that the most organized writers say one should do research beforehand. I actually do that, but then my characters go places and do things I hadn’t envisioned at the start. Which means another round of research, going back through books I’ve already read to find things I didn’t realize I should have taken notes on.

It makes me wonder which really comes first for me: the setting or the story.

Many of my stories ideas come from tidbits of historical accounts I’ve read. Yet once I get going, the story comes over. I think (I hope!) this is where the deeper and more universal themes start surfacing. This is the point where I go back through my sources to try to make the history fit–or at least be able to write a good Author’s Note explaining what I’ve tweaked.

I’ve heard some people say that a Regency (perhaps they meant the traditional Regency) should be a story that couldn’t possibly take place in any other setting. On the other hand, how about the transformation of Pride & Prejudice to Bridget Jones’s Diary or Emma to Clueless?

I know these reinventions don’t work for some but they do for me. I think it’s because the characters and the stories are timeless. And yet there’s more to these adaptations than just translating clothing and cultural references. The setting isn’t just a backdrop, any more than Jane Austen’s “3 or 4 families in a country village”. It’s all in how the universal story finds expression in a new setting.

So what do you think comes first, setting or story?

Or do they feed each other, as I’m beginning to think?

Elena
www.elenagreene.com

About Elena Greene

Elena Greene grew up reading anything she could lay her hands on, including her mother's Georgette Heyer novels. She also enjoyed writing but decided to pursue a more practical career in software engineering. Fate intervened when she was sent on a three year international assignment to England, where she was inspired to start writing romances set in the Regency. Her books have won the National Readers' Choice Award, the Desert Rose Golden Quill and the Colorado Romance Writers' Award of Excellence. Her Super Regency, LADY DEARING'S MASQUERADE, won RT Book Club's award for Best Regency Romance of 2005 and made the Kindle Top 100 list in 2011. When not writing, Elena enjoys swimming, cooking, meditation, playing the piano, volunteer work and craft projects. She lives in upstate New York with her two daughters and more yarn, wire and beads than she would like to admit.
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Cara King
14 years ago

Oh, I think it’s all a big mishmash in the brain… (“Brain? What is brain?” — to quote one of the best Star Trek episodes ever.) πŸ™‚

Cara

Elena Greene
14 years ago

I don’t doubt you’re right, Cara. At least something is starting to coalesce out of the amorphous mess, like a person emerging from a transporter beam (sticking with the Star Trek analogy).

Elena πŸ™‚

P.S. I suddenly realized how much I like “coalesce” and “amorphous”.

Diane Gaston
14 years ago

I wish I could think of a Star Trek analogy…..

Elena, I think it is impossible to research everything before writing the story. I advocate researching only enough to figure out that the story will work (eg history fits story)and enough to get started. I stop writing to research something as I go.

I definitely think story is what comes before setting. Isn’t this Joseph Campbell’s point in Hero With a Thousand Faces?
I think the stories that work best are those that retell archetypal themes in a new and fresh way.

That said, I NEVER think about this stuff when I’m writing….

Elena Greene
14 years ago

I advocate researching only enough to figure out that the story will work (eg history fits story)

Yup, I do that, but then the story turns into a different one…

I stop writing to research something as I go.

I usually try to keep moving when drafting because it’s so easy to get sidetracked by research! But I may try your approach next time the plot makes a big switch.

What does amaze me is how often I find that history will back up what I planned for the story, or even offer something that will work even better. Maybe it’s magic. Or at least a sign that I’m on the right track. πŸ™‚

Susan Wilbanks
14 years ago

So what do you think comes first, setting or story?

I’ve never really thought about it before, but I guess setting comes first for me. At least, I never get an idea for a plot or a set of characters in a vacuum and think, “Gee, should this be Regency England or Ancient Greece or Colonial Pennsylvania or what?” When I know the what and who, the when and where is obvious–at least on a big picture level. I’ll probably have to decide if I need 1809 or 1815, Surrey or Oxfordshire, etc.

I also research throughout the writing process. My WIP is full of notes of details I need to look up at some point, but aren’t important enough to stop writing until I find them.

Elena Greene
14 years ago

In this post I wasn’t thinking as broadly as Regency vs ancient Greece or whatever. Sometimes I wish I could write a story that just used basic Regency facts I already know! But it’s not all tea and Almack’s to me.

I was really thinking about all the background needed to create the specific story. It seems to go back and forth. Sometimes the story needs some historical fact to make my intended plot work. Other times my research gives me ideas that drive the plot in a different direction. And as Cara said, sometimes it’s a big mishmash in the brain. πŸ™‚

janegeorge
14 years ago

The piece of pizza I’m eating right now looks like a Horta. I feel like doing the Vulcan mind meld and crying, “Pain!, pain!”

Aren’t you glad this is a blog and I can’t talk with my mouth full?

Whether it’s Sci-Fi or Regency, Story rules for me. Where the timeless elements of human nature conflict with the particular confines of the setting makes the setting important. But IMHO it’s subservient to Story.

I just took the last bite. It’s dead, Jim.

Keira Soleore
14 years ago

That picture of Cher from Clueless is so cute, so full of life, it’s impossible not to love her and her chick flick.

I would insert people between the setting and the story, with the setting (as in Regency or the Middle Ages for me) coming first. But the people are at the heart of anything I think of and write.

Susan Wilbanks
14 years ago

In this post I wasn’t thinking as broadly as Regency vs ancient Greece or whatever. Sometimes I wish I could write a story that just used basic Regency facts I already know! But it’s not all tea and Almack’s to me.

Ah. I think I went there because of the P&P/Bridget Jones and Clueless/Emma reference–the idea of taking the same story and setting it in a different place/time.

But, yeah, I think setting and story feed each other. And there’s usually a sort of serendipity–you find the best ideas when you’re not exactly looking for them.

Diane Gaston
14 years ago

I’m pretty sure I could tell stories with my own personal spin on “Story” no matter what the time period or setting.

I started out writing contemporaries, trying for a Harlequin line. I loved those stories. Not as much as I love Regency, but I’d go back there if I had to.

So for me it is story.
Although setting is part of the fun of telling the story.

doglady
14 years ago

I think the stories that touch us the most deeply are the universal ones that could probably told in any setting and time period. Writing Regency does require a lot of research (more and more I am discovering!)but much of what I have learned in researching my first novel I will use over and over again. Sometimes setting IS a character in the book. I have just started fiddling with my second novel (yes, I know I need to finish revising my first, but I needed to breathe a bit!)In my second novel the setting IS an integral part of the ensemble. So, to answer your question …. I HAVE NO CLUE!!! I just write it as it comes and hope for the best!

Elena Greene
14 years ago

Ah. I think I went there because of the P&P/Bridget Jones and Clueless/Emma reference–the idea of taking the same story and setting it in a different place/time.

Sorry about that, Susan! Thinking about the interaction of setting and story in my mss led me to muse on broader relationships between story and setting but now I see it was confusing. My brain is fried this week–I will try to be more coherent next time!

I agree with you, Keira, people are most important. My characters just don’t emerge fully until I’ve put them into some challenging situations. And then when they emerge they wreak havoc with plot and research. πŸ™‚

Susan Wilbanks
14 years ago

My brain is fried this week–I will try to be more coherent next time!

No need to apologize! My brain is pretty fried, too. I’m hoping I’ll get a bit of a break this weekend, because I get an extra day off–my daughter’s church-based daycare is closed for Good Friday, and I’m staying home to take care of her.

Todd
14 years ago

A story can survive being displaced to a different time or setting, I think–but not every such displacement works! I loved the movie Clueless, and thought it was pretty true to the spirit of Emma. (And I agree with Keira, Alicia Silverstone’s adorable, happy Cher is a lot of what made it work.) I liked the movie Bridget Jones’s Diary, but I didn’t really think it had much to do with Pride and Prejudice. (I don’t know, maybe the book was closer.)

Nowadays people are fond of re-setting Shakespeare’s plays in different times and places. Sometimes this works very well–I thought Ian McKellen’s Richard III was brilliant. Sometimes it makes little difference, like the Victorian-set film of Twelfth Night. And sometimes it fails. I thought Branagh’s recent film of As You Like It, set in Japan, made no sense at all. Which is ironic, because I was involved in a production of The Winter’s Tale set in Japan last year, which I thought worked pretty well. Not every setting works for every story!

Todd-who-is-currently-dressed-as-a-samurai

testa
testa
14 years ago

hello