R. Shapiro photo


by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

October 2007

". . . fiction and nonfiction requires the writer to establish a sense of place. . ."
Most fiction and nonfiction requires the writer to establish a sense of place, a setting that must be believable. Even in science fiction where the world of the story is imaginary, it has to sound real. In fantasy/adventure, you even have to supply a map. And if you make an error, have the knight in shining armor gallop on a road to the west of the castle that has a different name than the one on the map, readers will deluge the publishers with complaints. For example:

My first home was in one of the old summer mansions in Rockaway Beach, Queens, a borough of New York City where my family and I lived year round. Like all the other mansions on my block, ours had been carved into apartments when the subway was built and the rich moved way out east to get away from us riffraff. Even though our neighbors weren't Diamond Jim Brady or Lillian Russell who used to summer in our town, I still felt rich living there. Two cement lions guarded the front door and there was a frieze of panthers on the wall of the lobby. The steps up to our apartment had gold tread. Inside our apartment, French doors with cut-glass knobs separated each room. My mother sewed door-curtains so no one could see through the glass panes into the bedrooms. The rooms were large and bright. In the summer, with the windows open, you the ocean sounded like rashers of frying bacon. The air was so salty that it rusted the bodies of cars.

On my bedroom ceiling there was a concave half-sphere, the inside of a dome on our roof. I'd sit beneath it and imagine that I was a princess and ordered my big sisters around. (Of course, they weren't home at the times I played this game.) I had a desk that opened like the cover of a piano's keyboard. I'd draw pictures of…what else?…princesses, but only in profile; I couldn't dry full face. My floor was covered with linoleum that was printed with characters from nursery rhymes. I'd hop from Simple Simon to Mistress Mary and Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son.

I played records on my record player. "In the land of France, a little girl named Tina loved to dance, dance, dance, and they called her ballerina."

Our porch was just off my room. I'd go outside, climb over the rail. With my arms behind me, I'd thrust myself forward like the figure on the prow of a ship and look down three stories to Eightieth Street. Bobby, who had his parrot on his shoulder. Bobby was a grown man who lived with his mother and was angry about it, but couldn't seem to move out. The only one he talked to was his parrot. And the only answer his parrot could give him was, "Polly want a Solly." Solly was Bobby's male parrot who had somehow not had his wings adequately clipped and took off one day.

Once, our across-the-street neighbor, Mr. Alvarez, noticed me leaning over the porch, and called the police. The police and seven fire engines showed up. They even put out a net in case I jumped. After I was rescued, my mother swore she'd kill me if I ever did that again.

". . . setting must have specificity, description
to make it real enough so that the reader sees it. . . "



To establish a setting, a writer needs to locate the area. Here I was able to say where it was—Rockaway Beach, Queens, New York. Sometimes the description has to be more extensive, naming the surrounding countries.

A setting usually has a history. Here I wrote about how Rockaway Beach had been a place for the rich and famous to summer before the subways were built. I could have gone all the way back to the Indians who had settled the land first if it had been pertinent.

A setting must have specificity, description to make it real enough so that the reader sees it as a snapshot or even a movie. The descriptions are usually of both exteriors and interiors. Notice how I wrote about the details of the environment such as the salt air, the sounds of the sea, as well as the details of the house itself—the cement lions, the domed roof,, the frieze of panthers.

"The characters who live there are an inextricable part of creating
the setting."

There are always sounds in a setting that make it distinctive.

A setting takes place in a certain time. Description of the furnishings, the style of the houses, even the streets–cobblestone or asphalt, for example, help you.

The characters who live there are an inextricable part of creating the setting. They make the setting come alive. What is a linoleum floor printed with nursery rhymes without a little girl hopping around on it? What interest could there be in a desk without a little girl sitting at it to draw princesses? And what would Eightieth Street have been with Bobby and his parrot, Polly, and his awol pet, Solly, who lifted off Bobby's shoulder and beat his red wings into the sky?

"Wherever you are in your writing, you must take the reader with you."

Wherever you are in your writing, you must take the reader with you. You must pull back the homemade curtains on the glass panes of the French doors and let them peek into all the rooms of your written world.

Rochelle Jewel Shapiro
Rochelle Jewel Shapiro’s novel, Miriam the Medium, was nominated for the Harold U. Ribelow Award. She’s published essays in NYT (Lives) and Newsweek-My Turn, and in many anthologies such as It’s a Boy (Seal Press, 2005), The Imperfect Mom (Broadway Books, 2006) About What Was Lost (Plume Books, 2007.) Her poetry, short stories, and essays have appeared in many literary magazines such as The Iowa Review, Negative Capability, Moment, and in many anthologies such as Father (Pocket Books, 2000). The short story from that collection, "The Wild Russian," will be reprinted for educational testing purposes nationwide. She currently teaches "Writing the Personal Essay" at UCLA on-line and is a book critic for Kirkus. She can be reached at http://www.miriamthemedium.com/