Nichole Bernier’s blog post on locations and their impact on fiction got me thinking about the settings in my own work and why I picked them. Bernier starts her post with two key questions “Do settings reflect the mood of the novel? Or do settings set the mood of a novel?”
For me, the answer lies in the anthropic principle.*
The anthropic principle holds that only a universe whose physical laws permit the existence of intelligent beings can be observed by intelligent beings. In other words, all the apparent coincidences that allow for life to exist and evolve into something with perceptive talents like ours have to have taken place, otherwise, we couldn’t exist to notice them, bandy them about, or model them mathematically.
In fiction, the anthropic principle is essential. A story can happen only if the right conditions–character arc, motivation, setting–interact to create it. Authors build universes so that their stories can happen within them. They build characters whose contingent and coincidental pasts lead them to particular places and times in those universes that are helpful in developing a story’s theme and mood, and in compelling those characters to dramatic action.
In my career as a lousy little god, I’ve built two large scale universes: Menominee Falls, Michigan and (my version of) Munich circa 1936.
For Dismantle the Sun I invented the town of Menominee Falls, Michigan. (Not to be confused with Menominee, Michigan or Menominee Falls, Wisconsin.) I imagined it as a one-time agricultural town that started to evolve into a rural, arts colony kind of setting in the 1960s. To demonstrate this, I had Hal take his mother-in-law to the Fire and Ice cafe for an evening snack:
Hal could see from three blocks away that the Fire and Ice was still open. The lights blazed out from the front windows, laying a glimmering sheen on the icy sidewalk in front. Hal woke Margaret after he pulled to the curb and shut off the engine, and moments later they were inside, smelling tea, butter, and day old pastry.
The management of the Fire and Ice had taken down the WPA tribute photographs that had adorned their walls for six months, and allowed some local artists to splatter those walls with paint instead. In doing this they achieved the same effect that Jackson Pollack might have had if his art collided with a Sherwin-Williams truck. Hal’s reaction to them was not, as it was for many people around town, the response of a philistine. Jodie had taken the time to explain the aesthetics of abstract expressionism to him while they were still dating, leading him to a sophisticated enough understanding to pronounce these paintings crap in a mature and educated fashion. Even so, the Fire and Ice had the same undeniable charm of a puppy who jumps on a person in greeting moments after wallowing in his own excrement. Yes, it’s disgusting, but the poor beast is only trying to please. The place was empty, though the sign said they would be open for another three hours. Hal and Margaret took a table next to the window.
“ I don’t remember the video store being there before,” Margaret said.
“No. Mickey moved it from the plaza location when his collection got too big for it.” It had been a drama in itself. The Journal-Tribune documented the entire move, explaining the precautions that had to be taken to preserve the older titles.
“What was there before?”
“Where did they go?”
“They shut down.”
The Fire and Ice is based on an artsy coffee place I’d sometimes visit in Port Angeles, WA back in the 1990s. (I don’t remember its name, so don’t ask. Besides, it’s been gone for years.) I wanted it, and the neighboring video store (with its rare titles) to be symbols of the changing economy and demographics of this town, which would go some way toward explaining both Hal’s architectural fashion victim of a house and Ruth’s position in an ugly episode of the town’s cultural war.
As for the winter setting and the name Fire and Ice, heat and cold play vital roles in the story. Because Dismantle the Sun opens with impending death, I wanted the book set near the coldest place I’d ever lived: Appleton, WI, which would force the characters to dart from warm place to warm place. This dynamic shaped their behavior in ways I found useful.
My next book, Summer of Long Knives, takes place in a real world setting: 1930s-era Munich. Real locations are more demanding where research is concerned, but the novelist’s burden doesn’t end there. The location must be filtered with through a character’s consciousness, through what draws that character’s eye. It’s not enough to capture Munich. I have to capture the Munich of Inspector Rolf Wundt:
The next morning Rolf stood by the Ehrentempel in the Köningsplatz, waiting for Theodor von der Pfordten. According to Rolf’s watch, it was 10.15. Men in grey uniforms criss-crossed the square. Friday’s rally had left behind hundreds of cigarette butts, spent flower petals, gum wrappers, and assorted trash for them to sweep with their brooms and trap in their clickity-clicking dustbins.
Gretl Hofstengl had been here. Some of those flower petals, laid over the stones, were probably hers. Rolf remembered trying hard to wrap up his work so that he could get the hell out of here before the crowds started to fill this place. What would he have seen if he’d decided to show up?
Rolf hated the Ehrentempel structures. It wasn’t that everything that Hitler built was Greek. His house was, as Klara put it, an inflated Teutonic chalet. But all of Hitler’s public buildings seemed keen to look like a place where a priest would toss steaming entrails on an altar. Were there no other inspirations in the architectures of the world? Couldn’t he have put two pyramids here? Or two ziggurats? Or onion domes? Wasn’t the Taj Mahal a spectacular enough tomb? Modernist buildings incorporated curves. Would one of them kill the Third Reich? And if so, why not build it?
Besides, if this was what Hitler built for his dead friends, what sort of tomb could he expect for Hitler? Probably some mile wide version of the Parthenon, with a sixty foot tall golden statue of Hitler. How much of Munich would have to be knocked down for it? The whole town would look like a schoolchild’s model of ancient Athens.
Where the hell was this Von der Pfordten? Rolf was doing his best to look like a man impatiently waiting for someone. It was now 10.25, and there was work to be done.
Rolf climbed the steps to the upper level of the Ehrentempel, where the guards stood. Rolf opened his mouth to speak, but the guard put his finger to his lips like a scolding librarian and led Rolf back down the steps. Rolf pulled out his badge and showed it to him. “I’m waiting for a man named Theodor Von Der Pfordten, but he hasn’t shown up. If you see him, tell him he can find me at the KRIPO headquarters until noon.”
The SS guard looked as if Rolf had told him that he was expecting to see Napoleon or King Arthur. “You’re waiting for Theodor Von Der Pfordten? Is that what you said?”
The SS guard shook his head. “Someone’s having you on, sir.”
“What do you mean?”
“Follow me, Inspector.”
The SS guard led Rolf around the Ehrentempel’s corner and up its steps. Rolf looked down to the recessed floor, where eight crypts, arranged symmetrically in two rows, rested. Brass plaques capped each of them and displayed the names of their inhabitants. The SS guard pointed to the second one on the left. Rolf stepped forward a bit to read the name, which was in the roof’s shadow.
It was Theodor Von Der Pfordten.
Nazi architecture was characterized both by an aggressive neo-classicism and by a need to overwhelm the individual and shape their universe, which is precisely what it’s doing to Rolf. (And which is why he responds so negatively to it.) Through most of the story, Nazism overwhelms Rolf’s efforts to find the serial killer he’s hunting for. It pushes him around. It thwarts him by concealing the guilty and intimidating the innocent. Over the course of the novel, Munich begins to take on the feeling of a jungle, the banners and flags waving like palm fronds, and predators feeding on prey.
Rolf’s behavior in the Koningplatz also positions him with respect to Nazism. Rolf’s boss told him he could guarantee a meeting with Von Der Pfortden, the man Rolf’s murder witness says he shot in 1923, at the Ehrentempel. This turned out to be his boss’s little joke on his Social Democratic investigator; all good Nazis knew the names of the sixteen men entombed at the Ehrentempel because those dead men were among the Nazis shot during the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch. Rolf has never heard of them because he’s not from Munich and because he hasn’t devoted himself to studying the corpses the Nazis venerate.
That Von der Pfordten is buried there also means something else, Rolf’s murder witness, a skittish former Dachau inmate, was at one time among the policemen who stopped Hitler’s first grab for power.
Settings create problems for characters. They shape characters’ view of the world, their personalities, their politics, their morals, their gender relations, their needs, and their wants. They provide information. They inspire jokes. They interact with the character to make story and theme. Take Mrs. Dalloway out of London, or Leopold Bloom out of Dublin, or Hamlet from Elsinore, and something crucial is lost. Characters, rather like us, cannot function independent of space and time. They need a universe to inhabit to be who we want them to be.
*There are actually two main anthropic principles. The strong one, in which the Universe is finely tuned for creatures like us, and the weak one, in which we (thanks to natural selection) are finely tuned for the universe. In science, the weak anthropic principle better fits the evidence of cosmology, astronomy, and biology. In fiction, the strong anthropic principle works just as well. (Better in fact. Fictional universes, unlike their real counterpart, are intelligently–or not so intelligently–designed.)