Setting Our Stages


Since last October, I have completed half a dozen short stories and have begun a novel. When I throw in all the blogging I’ve done as well, that’s a lot of words for a busy day-jobber – specially one who prior to this year hadn’t completed jack squat in half a decade.

I realized the other day that I hadn’t taken stock of my projects in a while, so I spent some time doing just that. As I reviewed them, I noticed a trend – I use the same two settings for almost every piece I write.

1. The Beach Town

Off-Season Beach Trip (A Long Time Ago)

Some of my favorite memories have been made during off-season visits to the shore. The above pic was taken during a spring break trip with a group of girlfriends when I was in my early twenties. It was March, and the first time I’d ever seen snow flurries on the ocean. I still think about that view when I need to “go to a happy place.”

I love writing stories that are set in beach towns. My resort towns are always old-school. There are boardwalks and rickety old inns jutting up between the newfangled hotels. There are bookstores, arcades, ferris wheels, t-shirt shops, and eateries out the ying-yang. Most of them are closed, because my tales tend to take place among the locals during the off-season.

My beach towns are never in tropical areas, so the sea is slate-grey this time of year and the wind on the beach bites my characters’ cheeks. But the seagulls still swoop and the air smells of saltwater and the few brave boardwalk fried food havens that risk doing business once the tourists have all gone home.

Although most are shut down until the sun heats up the beach again, there’s always one bar on the boardwalk that stays open. It is, of course, where all my locals gather. In the Novel-in-Progress, it is where my two main characters come together.  

2. The Little Mountain Town

The off-season beach is far and away my favorite place to go when I write. But a close second is the off-the-beaten-track mountain town. The summers are warm but gentle, the autumns a blaze of glory, and the winters harsh. The characters are a mishmosh of those who have lived there forever and the inevitable transplant, who is usually the main focus of the story.

The town centers are small but cozy. Every place my characters need to go is right there in one pleasant walk along cobbled sidewalks. The buildings are big and old, and during holidays like Halloween or Christmas, everyone decorates their storefronts and porches to the hilt. The towns are bustling sometimes, but only in that “handful of regulars” kind of way. They are nestled in valleys surrounded by wooded mountains and there’s always a stream or river close by. After all, the children need to play and the tobacco-chewing mountain men need a fishing hole.

Berkeley Springs

Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, where we go as often as we can for the fall Apple Butter festival (pictured here), is a prime example of the kind of town I mean. A place where lifers and artists, writers and musicians mingle with the redneckiest of the rednecks, and where the same person often fits all of the above stereotypes.

On the surface, these towns are peaceful and comforting, humming along to a rhythm that is slower and more even than a fast-paced urban life. But they are also full of superstition and secrets. There are sharp rusty edges beneath the fluffy cloud surfaces, and those edges cut deep.

These are the places where almost all my fiction happens. The names may change, but the surroundings are basically the same. Why is that?

They say you should write what you know, and yes, I have been to these places. My beach towns are reminiscent of nearby Ocean City MD and Rehobeth Beach DE, where I have spent many happy summer vacations and off-season visits. My mountain hideaways are much like the towns I’d visit with my West Virginian relatives when I summered with them as a child, and also like the little enclaves surrounding my parent’s cabin in PA now. So yes, I do know them.

But what I know even better is the hustle and bustle of city life, and the manicured chaos of suburbia. These are the places where I have done most of my growing and living, my aging and working. Yet they rarely make it into my tales. The one exception to that is stories that take place in a city corner bar eerily akin to my father’s pub.

I will write about city or suburban life if the tale in question is pre-destined to be very short – in the 2-5,000 word range. In fact, “A Wingding and a Prayer,” my piece in the July issue of eFiction, is set primarily on a busy city bus. Of course, it also features the aforementioned corner bar. But if the story in my head is designed to be a longer tale, I always take it to the beach or the mountains.

We can never be sure why our writer’s minds take us where they do, but in this case I have a pretty good idea.

To write a story well, we must build the setting in our mind and live in it for a time. We have to see it, hear it and smell it. We walk around in it using our characters’ feet, and see it through their eyes. When writing a longer piece, we do this for long stretches of time.

I see manicured lawns and traffic and strip malls every day. I smell exhaust and the neighbor’s garbarge on a hot summer trash day. I hear the bleating of horns and the chatter of worker-bees in convenience store lines. Sometimes there are fascinating characters there, but the daily routine is also grinding and exhausting. More often than not, I am sick of it.

So when I write, I like to take myself away. If I’m going to be there for a while, I want the surroundings to be both different and pleasant. I want them to hold the beauty of nature but also house the quirkiness of humanity. What better places for that than isolated mountain villages or off-season beach resorts? These are the natural homes to fortunetellers and mountain healers and people running from messes they’ve left behind.

But they are also beautiful, places you don’t mind getting up before dawn to visit if that’s when you must write. I am never excited to crawl out of bed and hit the lemming-line that is off-to-work traffic. But I was always thrilled to wake up before the sun and pile in the car with my family to head to the beach or the mountains.

Where does your fiction take you? Do you the travel the world, or write about your own backyard? Do you seek familiar comforts or stretch your wings? Do you build worlds that don’t exist or expound on places nearby? Why do you choose to have your tales take place where they do? And if you don’t write, is there a particular setting you most like to visit when you read?


About hawleywood40

Writer, Steelers Fan in Baltimore, Frequent Visitor to the Shot Fairy
This entry was posted in Creativity, Fiction, Writing, Writing A Novel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Setting Our Stages

  1. I think we pick places we know or places we want to know. For me it’s Arizona, Virginia and Texas (places I know) and Cornwall and London (places I want to know)

    • hawleywood40 says:

      I think you’re right, Diana. In thinking on even a smaller scale than actual towns, I realize my action rarely if happens in the kind of places I hate to go. My characters might have to go to the hospital, but you don’t see much of them while they’re there. I should probably work on that – capturing some of the angst I feel about certain places from a characters point of view might actually set the mood for certain settings.

  2. akamonsoon says:

    I did a short story once on Prague. I’ve never been there of course but I went by pictures and things I had read about it. Of course it had to be set in winter time while snowing.

    • hawleywood40 says:

      That is so amazing – in my 20’s one of my best friends from high school fell in love with a guy from Prague (he was living and working in the US) and they ended up having their wedding there. I was just out of college and not able to save nearly enough to be able to travel to the wedding, but I loved hearing her stories about it and seeing the pictures. So beautiful and full of history that is hard to imagine when you live in a comparatively young city. They divorced eventually and he decided to move back to Prague. I still keep in touch with him on Facebook and whenever I whine about the “Swampass” Maryland summer he gives me a cool and breezy Prague weather update. Another one of those odd little details where are worlds are more similar than we realize : )! I’d love to read that story.

  3. l'empress says:

    I’m the (mostly) city girl who would love to visit your beach town. But I wanted to tell you, I loved “A Wingding and a Prayer.”

    It reminded me of an anecdote I heard…I don’t know when. In one of these little churches where everyone knew “the right thing to do,” a a new man started attending, dressed in overalls. His clothes were always clean and ironed, but they were definitely work clothes, not what one is supposed to wear to church.

    One Sunday after the service, the pastor went up to the man and said, “You should ask God what he thinks of the clothes you wear to church.” The man agreed, but the following Sunday he was still wearing overalls. The pastor asked him what God would think of his church attire. The man said, “I asked God, but he didn’t know, because he said he never comes to your church.”

    • hawleywood40 says:

      Thank you! Wingding is a real character from my pub life, and does a lot of the things I’ve had him do in the story. Eric’s encounter with him on the bus is loosely based on something I saw him do once … I just added in the Church Ladies. Funny thing is, in my “real world” Wingding can be a very mean-spirited little guy too – I’ve seen him cuss and spit at people who look just as hard up as he is when they have nothing to give him. But turning that around a little came easy in the story …

  4. I don’t write fiction, but my writing takes me to the past and to places both external and internal. The internal landscapes are the most intricate and challenging to explore–but also the most picturesque…

  5. Shelly says:

    Maybe it’s personal therapy.

  6. Catie Rhodes says:

    I always go “home” to deep East Texas, about an hour from the Louisiana border. Out there, the pines tower over the two-lane blacktop. All you can hear is the occasional zip of a car whizzing by and the endless hum of crickets, frogs, and mosquitos.

    Sometimes a shadow crashes through those mile-high pines. You know it could be bigfoot (who locals claim to see about once a year) or it might be a rooter (a feral hog) who might chase you until you climb a tree to escape. Watch your step because the copperheads blend into pine straw carpeting the ground. The whole world smells like water and astringent pine and rotting vegetation.

    It’s funny. I couldn’t wait to leave. I don’t ever plan to move back. However, it’s the only place I write about.

    • hawleywood40 says:

      It sounds beautiful – the kind of place I’d definitely want to escape to in both writing and reading! Perfect for anything from supernatural to romance to adventure to just writing about everyday life … your description here has me smelling pine and seeing shadows in my office : )!

    • l'empress says:

      You will surely enjoy parts of Spoken from the Heart by Laura Bush. She had great grandparents in Arkansas.

  7. Stacy says:

    I’m from boring Iowa, so I don’t really like writing what I know. The novel I’m editing now is set in Las Vegas, and I loved learning about the city in my research. My next two books will be set in Minnesota, and I’ll be more familiar with them, but I still like to go outside of my back yard. I guess it’s my way of traveling for free.

    • hawleywood40 says:

      Vegas is such an “anything can happen” kind of place, and such a gold mine of characters too! I’ve only been there twice, and both times were for work conferences, so I didn’t get to explore nearly as much as I’d have liked. But I was fascinated by what I was able to see – so extravagant and flashy and BIG. Heck, in Vegas you didn’t even have to leave your hotel to see something you could write about for pages and pages! I like the “traveling for free” concept – maybe that’s why I choose places that have always made me happy even if the story I’m writing is more on the creepy side.

  8. Thanks for stopping by my blog. Well, my dear, you are a very good writer! I have lived near several beaches in my life, but never for long… and now am ensconced in the Midwest, but near several lakes, in Madison, WI. My favorite books often involved beaches and beachside communities, such as The Mermaid Chair.

    I grew up in the country, but because of wild family (alcohol, incest, and the respite of visits from incredible jazz musicians), I almost never write about the actual pastoral setting. The people are soooooo much more interesting, and the experience dark, moody, and ironically funny. Also lots of social justice, like my 3WW post this week… Peace, Amy

  9. Aurora says:

    Yes, you are a very good writer, the vivid imagery of your beach towns, mountain towns alive and well in my mind. Where I go is anywhere that emerges, could be a town, on a bus, like you, mostly small towns wherever they may happen to be. How on earth do you manage to juggle work, writing a novel and keeping up with your blog, Hawley, that’s what I really want to know. Amazing. I am so stretched right now, I can barely find time to think, let alone write much. Thanks once again for the always inspirational read 🙂

    • hawleywood40 says:

      I so understand that stretched feeling. Sometimes I am sure I’ve turned into Gumby lol. I guess the blogging helps keep me sane, and that’s why it gets done. As far as the novel, it goes much slower than I would like – sometimes I’m lucky to have a 500-word week, and other weeks I pour out 5,000 and laugh all the way. For many writers, even that wouldn’t be enough, but I just have to tell myself that as long as there’s SOME progress, its all good. I learned by previous failures not to beat myself up over not doing everything I wanted to do as long as overall I was going forwards and not backwards : ). Hope you get some R&R this weekend!

  10. Marcia says:

    For my current WIP, my setting is the area where my Mom grew up and the story is very loosely based on her early life experiences. I would like to write a book that’s set in an eastern coastal town. I’m a huge fan of beaches, too, though not for sunbathing. Being close to any fairly large body of water, like Lake Ontario and especially the ocean, gives me a peaceful feeling. Maybe it’s being in the presence of the power of the surf, not sure. Whatever it is, I would love to live right at the water’s edge so I could stare at its beauty to my heart’s content. I can understand why your settings are always similar. Great post, Pam.

    • hawleywood40 says:

      I love eastern coastal towns … there’s just something about saltwater and sands and rickety old weathered buildings near a beach that make me feel both at peace and inspired!

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