Daily Archives: May 22, 2012

The scent-test

Book Meme 2012

Week 8: Best Story Settings

I read for setting.

I love characters, I love plot, I adore good dialog, but give me a book with a good setting. Books where place is not important to the author often fail to impress me, and books where the setting rubs me the wrong way are shut, never to be opened by me again.

I am not sure if I am in the minority or not. I hear of people being impatient with description, and yet so many books seem to be loved, as I love them, for the rich texture of their settings.

When I first started writing, I was interested more in the world than anything else. My characters were cliches and my plot was barely functional, but I got the texture right. Whatever their flaws, I want to step into my worlds and smell them.

Yep, I judge a book-setting by its smell. If I want to step into a book and take a deep breath, I am pleased. That is not to say that the world has to smell pleasant. Khazad-dûm does not, I think, have an airy smell, yet I desire to step into it.  The setting just has to have a unique and interesting bouquet.

What makes a setting compel or repel me? I honestly have no answer.  It is also as impossible for me to choose my favorite setting as it is to choose my favorite book. Luckily, this week’s question does not ask my favorite, it asks the best. Not that that is a much easier question.

There are many contenders, and I could argue the supremacy of each, but I shall stick to one victor and an honorable mention. I have chosen these two because there is something very special about each of them, something that makes them stand out against the many rich and wonderful worlds that literature has opened to me.

The honorable mention is:

Middle Earth, from the writings of J. R. R. Tolkien

Middle Earth stands out from all other fiction I have encountered. It is deep and textured as no other. Tolkien must, I think, have had severe obsessive issues to write what he did.

There are languages that intertwine and evolve, vibrant mythologies, peoples with history and memory, geography that is firm but not static, with a history all its own, and much more. There is not a point in any of the stories set in Middle Earth where I do not feel that I could step in and smell the air. When I read, it feels as real to me as the ground on which I sit, if not moreso.

The rarity of such a world in fiction goes without saying. I have yet to encounter anything so complete. Many have tried to do what Tolkien did, and if anyone has succeeded, I have yet to read their work.

But there is something even more challenging than writing a world as comprehensive as Middle Earth, and that is why the victor of this contest is:

Wonderland, from Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, by Lewis Carroll

Lewis Carroll, (or Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, if you prefer, poor chap), did something very rare with these two books. He opened a window into the real world of the imagination and dreams of children.  I cannot express how rare this is.

Writers are almost all handicapped by the fact that they are adults. Adulthood involves, among other things, being trapped on one side of the looking-glass.  By this, I do not mean that we lose our imagination, or that we cannot remember what it was like to travel the landscapes of childhood, but as we mature, our minds change. We think differently, and we easily forget, and as such we can see through the looking-glass, but it is next to impossible to re-enter it.

When a writer attempts to paint child-dreams with words, they almost always forget something. Often, they forget the underlying threat. Children may be ignorant of the world, but they are not innocents. Think back on your childhood and pick up the threads of violence, threat, and nightmare and you will know what I mean. To truthfully show what a child imagines is to remember the shadow behind the door.

By the same token, some writers either forget to abandon adult logic, or forget that children have a logic of their own. A child’s imagination is not bound by norms that have not yet been learned, but there is rhyme and reason to the landscape of their thoughts. It makes sense to a child that one half of a mushroom might make you grow, while the other half would make you shrink, and once you accept the properties of mushrooms, the events of the story follow quite reasonably.

The child’s fascination with the world is more often remembered, but even that takes skill to express. Carroll, I think, captures all of this. Wonderland is wonderful, but it is not innocent, or safe, or logical, or nonsensical. It is, in short, a child’s world. In creating Alice’s adventures, Carroll transcended his own adulthood and created a world capable of reminding adults what it is like to be a child. As impressive as Tolkien’s body of work is, I am more impressed by Carroll’s ability to travel in time.

Here are the links to the rest of this series, in order:

1. Motley Crew

2. Cue Music/Shout Out

3. Villainy Most Vile

4. Very Ominous Endings

5. Shapes are Only Dressess… and Dresses are Only Names

6. Chridonalchett

7. Verbage

8. The Scent Test

9. Personal Question

10. Packing Lightly

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