02 September 2010

Guest Post: Pam Ripling on Setting and Storytelling

It is my great pleasure to welcome back Pam Ripling. You may recall the terrific post she wrote for me last year about the connection between photography and writing. That post also introduced you to her mystery novel Point Surrender.

Pam's latest lighthouse book, Cape Seduction, is a little bit mystery, a little bit romance, and a little bit spooky. When I read Sandy's recent review (at You've Gotta Read This!), I decided not only that I wanted to read this novel but that it'd be perfect for October and Halloween. Here's the publisher's summary:

After being the backdrop for 1948’s critically acclaimed tragic romance, Cape Seduction, Northern California’s Dragon Rock Lighthouse sat shuttered and abandoned for decades—and it also happened to be the last place up-and-coming Hollywood starlet Darla Foster was seen alive.

When photojournalist Rebecca Burke locks horns with Los Angeles attorney Matt Farralone while trying to gain access to the derelict off-shore beacon, she encounters the spirit of the sassy, once-promising Oscar-hopeful Foster, and uncovers a 60-year-old secret that sets her world on end.

Today Pam is going to talk about an aspect of writing that can help create an unforgettable story. Let's take a look.

Not All Characters Are Human

That sounds like a lead-in for a discussion of the paranormal. The vampire, the orc, the ogre from the swamp. No, I'm talking about something a little more . . . theoretical, if you will. Specifically, in fiction, where setting is as much a character as the humans populating the story.

Maybe character isn't exactly the right word, but it suits my purpose. The setting can be a strong element in a novel. A piece of the story so vital to the tale, its removal would render the work irrevocably unrecognizable. Just like we understand that the antagonist might be something other than a person, so too can a place, a locale, a surrounding be a player. I'm going to throw out some works that illustrate my point.

In 1957's Spirit of St. Louis, James Stewart plays Charles Lindbergh on his famous flight across the Atlantic Ocean. He spends many hours alone in the cockpit, speaking out loud to the airplane as he loses his way, nods off, nearly crashes, and recovers. The single-engine Ryan aircraft becomes a character in the story. Indeed, Mr. Lindbergh himself is quoted as saying, "It’s like a living creature, gliding along smoothly, happily, as though a successful flight means as much to it as to me, as though we shared our experiences together, each feeling beauty, life, and death as keenly, each dependent on the other’s loyalty."

Did Margaret Mitchell consider the compelling element of the Civil War as an entity, the lead-in, duration, and aftermath of which played a huge role in her epic novel Gone with the Wind? Jay Anson's The Amityville Horror: A True Story certainly portrayed the home occupied by him and his wife as a horrific character, fraught with paranormal activity and not unlike Stephen King's Overlook Hotel in The Shining. These are but a few examples where settings can have as great an effect on a story as its main characters.

Agatha Christie made good use of setting in her Murder on the Orient Express. Without the train, Poirot's mystery would derail!

Some of you already know about my deep fascination with lighthouses. To me, the eerie disquiet of the abandoned St. George Reef Lighthouse in northern California provided just such a character for Cape Seduction. An immovable character locked in place and continuously assaulted by angry seas and heartless weather, Dragon Rock (as it's called in the novel) harbors a sixty-year-old secret while waiting for someone to return. The lighthouse is patient; it's stood for 130 years and will stand for many, many more. It has a role to play, as the other characters eventually discover.

While researching the off-shore beacon that lies at the center of Cape Seduction, I had the delightfully good fortune to speak on the telephone with a retired U.S. Coastguardsman who shared many tales of life inside the lighthouse. His descriptions of the atmosphere within the walls of St. George made the setting come alive for me, allowing me to "see" the tower as a character in my story.

For more about the writing of Cape Seduction and the research behind it, click over to Legendary Lighthouses.

But first, tell me about books or films where you see the setting as part of the cast.

Thank you, Candace, for having me back. This is always a favorite stop on my annual blog tour. Tomorrow, I'm at Alyssa's Area, where I'll be delving into the world of young adult fiction. Don't forget to enter my contest, celebrating the release of Cape Seduction. Winner gets free books! (Click on my photos to see them larger.)

No, thank you, Pam, for another fabulous guest post. I agree that setting and inanimate objects can become so important to a story that they seem to come alive. Here's my example: In the book Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy by Gary D. Schmidt the wind seemed to act as one of the principal characters. (Click the link for my review.)

Pam Ripling, who also writes as Anne Carter, is a self-proclaimed Lighthouse Nut and author of Beacon Street Mysteries Cape Seduction and Point Surrender, in paperback or for your Kindle; also for your Nook, iPhone, Sony eReader, and other formats at Omnilit. Visit Pam/Anne at Beacon Street Books.


Julie P. 9/2/10, 7:43 AM  

Great guest post. I'm thinking that I'll have to take a look at this book after Sandy's and your comments about it!

caite 9/2/10, 7:55 AM  

I must admit, I have not read the book yet, but with that lovely lighthouse, how can I hold out?

Anonymous,  9/2/10, 8:47 AM  

The setting as a character has always drawn me in my reading, and in my own novels--and in my life, too. I've heard this is a Southern trait, the love of place. Thanks for introducing me to Pam Ripling's books. Sounds like my cup of tea.

Anonymous,  9/2/10, 8:56 AM  

I am in total agreement with the whole "not all characters are human" philosophy. I love books that depend on the setting for depth. Lately, I've enjoyed several mysteries that were set in unique places or circumstances.

The cover on CAPE SEDUCTION is really nice. I like the vintage feel to it. I trotted right over to Amazon and purchased both the books for my Kindle. Looking forward to reading them.

Barbara 9/2/10, 9:48 AM  

I love books where setting is a character, particularly when they are set in a city I love or, for instance, in Nevada Barr's National Park settings. In Linda Gillard's Star Gazing, the Isle of Skye is an integral part of the story. I'm intrigued by the lighthouse themes and will look for the Anne Carter books.

Sandy Nawrot 9/2/10, 12:52 PM  

That Saint George Reef Lighthouse is simply amazing. I ran around a little bit on the Internet researching it, and it was the perfect setting for Pam's book. It loomed larger than life in the story. I am so glad you decided to read it!

bermudaonion 9/2/10, 2:38 PM  

I love it when the setting plays such a big part in a book. A recent title that comes to mind for me is City of Veils by Zoe Ferraris - it would have been a totally different story if it wasn't set in Saudi Arabia.

Shelley 9/2/10, 2:57 PM  

Her point here reminds me of director Ang Lee's best films: the setting becomes a character. Sense and Sensibility, Brokeback Mountain....

Dorte H 9/2/10, 3:19 PM  

Lighthouses and ghosts seem to go together like hand in glove these days! :D

Beth Hoffman 9/3/10, 9:13 AM  

I enjoyed reading this post ... thanks!

Pam Ripling 9/3/10, 10:52 AM  

Great comments! Thanks so much for visiting today and sharing my thoughts about setting. And thanks again to Candace for having me! Hopefully I'll be invited back next year... :)

Don't forget to stop by my website to read an excerpt from Cape Seduction and be entered into my contest for free books!


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