With the “Paging Through the Parks” celebration of the 100th anniversary of U.S. National Parks during August, it’s the perfect time to examine setting. Liz Garton Scanlon shares her experience mining the setting for story. What she found sprang from her own experience and memories, and how the setting had touched her.
In the Canyon: How Setting Became Story
As writers, we seem to be growing increasingly aware of the importance of setting – not just as backdrop, but as an essential component of every story. Setting can establish tone, help explain or elucidate characters, and make a piece more authentic overall. But is setting enough to serve as story on its own? Not usually. Stories need conflict, drama, challenge, satisfaction, right?
Enter the Grand Canyon. Several years ago, when my agent suggested I write a picture book about the Grand Canyon, I didn’t ask for clarification or direction. I should have. Because there I sat, with a setting and not much else. Except… except that this was the mother of all settings! The Grand Canyon! Talk about conflict, drama, challenge and satisfaction!
All I had to do was use what was inherent in the place already. I decided I would just document the story of a little girl hiking deep down into the Canyon with her family. The heat and dust and steep switchbacks and green river at the bottom would provide the arc for the story; the plentiful wildlife would punctuate the challenging journey with beauty and surprise.
I’ve done this hike myself and I’m here to tell you – you are stepping into a story as soon as you set foot into the Canyon. It’s an ancient place, with layers of red rock and still-pristine petroglyphs to prove it. Story. It’s a place that has provided home and haven to people and creatures of all kinds for many thousands of years. Story. It’s a place both unforgiving and generous in it’s landscape – from the precipitous drops to the exquisite cactus flowers, from the relentless sun to the magnificent views. Story.
So I simply got the girl started:
Here’s a map, some boots, a pack,
a walking stick, and sandy track…
And I followed her as she made the same journey I’d made, many years earlier:
… down this twisty, weavy way,
through golden yellow, green, and gray…
… Now it’s really getting steep,
and there’s the river, way down deep!…
… We reach the bottom, look back up.
We’ve dropped into a rocky cup!
And then, in the last few pages of the book, we take a moment to savor the setting – and the story it’s provided for the intrepid hiker, a story that will always and forever be a part of her.
In the end, in this case, setting was enough to serve as story. Is that likely to be true for most of us as we’re writing? No. Not every setting is quite this, well, grand. But IN THE CANYON will always serve as a reminder to me that if we take in all that a setting has to offer – if we really utilize its living, breathing, three-dimensionality – if we utilize the inherent drama of the time and place — it will get us part-way there before we even scuff up our boots or have to stop for a snack.
Illustrator Ashley Wolff’s post on IN THE CANYON
And, this month only, celebrate the centennial of the National Parks Service with PAGE THROUGH THE PARKS – a joint effort by authors Liz Garton Scanlon, Janet Fox and Barb Rosenstock, complete with book lists, blog posts, give-aways and more!