Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

Your Landscape Can Be A Character – 2014

May 30, 2014
Written by
Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

Your Landscape Can Be A Character

by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro 

June 2014

Watch for her insights every month on Authorlink

“In great fiction, the settings are not only real, but also embody the theme.”
—Shapiro

Think of F. Scott Fitzgerald The Great Gatsby, in which “a valley of ashes is bounded on one side by a small foul river, and when the drawbridge is up to let barges through, the passengers waiting trains can stare at the dismal scene for as long as half an hour.”

This abysmal valley is what people in the novel see who are waiting for the train between West Egg and New York. Fitzgerald describes it in such detail, that it feels so familiar to us, like the world today, where poor towns are being polluted, destroyed by industrialists, and also, it functions as a symbol of the decay that borders on the wealthy, their dark and dirty side, so to speak, even while they are living the glitzy life. And this route is where we first hear of Tom Buchanaan’s mistress, the blowsy wife of a garage mechanic who will meet her end in the end, proving at last that the 1% care not at all about the 99%.

In great fiction, the settings are not only real, but also embody the theme. The settings go beyond mere description into metaphor. What you have to do is link a place with an emotion. What happens there? Is the beach, for you, a place of tranquility or do you, like myself, have skin problems from having been a beach bum so that there is an underlying sadness or regret attached to it. Now wouldn’t that make for a perfect place for a fictional dissolution of a marriage? You think you were having a great time and then….

“All history is personal—it affects you differently than anyone else as well as your characters.”
—Shapiro

Let the landscape change over time the way a human character would. I grew up in Rockaway in Queens, a beachfront suburb of New York City. Before I moved there, it was like Gatsby’s East Egg. The rich, such as Diamond Jim Brady and Lillian Russell, had summer mansions there until the subway was built and ordinary folks such as my family moved in. Then came the city projects, the unscrupulous real estate agencies who scared people from their homes, and allowed the abandoned bungalows to become substandard year-round housing for the poorest. Gangs, crime. Oh, we have a saga here, just in the landscape. Set characters in it whose lives in some way parallel this change, and you’ve got something going.

All history is personal—it affects you differently than anyone else as well as your characters. The effect of the downturn in Rockaway back then, for me, was that I was educated in a slum school that set me back quite a few years in my basic skills. The landscape must have had a deep effect on your characters and it on them.

“In fiction, your landscape can and should be as alive as your other characters . . .”
—Shapiro

And you need to look at the landscape through the character’s eyes, not the author’s. If I were describing Rockaway, I would express love and regret. A character who survived hurricane Sandy, but is still homeless from the storm that ravaged the peninsula, it would be a completely different reaction.

In fiction, your landscape can and should be as alive as your other characters to lodge in the reader’s memory.

About
Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

Rochelle Jewel Shapiro is author of Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster) and the Indie Award Winning finalist, Kaylee’s Ghost (Amazon and Nook). I Dare You To Write: First Aids, Warm Conforts, Sparking Advice for the Journey Ahead (Authorlink) is a collection of essays for anyone who dreams of writing. She has published essays in NYT (Lives), Newsweek (My Turn), and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in poetry. She teaches Writing the Personal Essay at UCLA extension.

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