Beyond the Walls: The Plusses and Perils of Setting A Novel Outdoors
According to a story about Ian Fleming, he asked his friend William Plomer how you got smoke out of a girl. That's when Plomer knew he was writing a novel—Casino Royale, it turned out, the first in the James Bond series. If memory serves me, Fleming had the girl exhale. Not a particularly elegant word, and I'm not sure there is one. Smoking was sexy on the silver screen, not so much on the page.
I had a similar problem when I wrote my first novel, The Royal Wulff Murders. It wasn't smoking I had to deal with, rather, simply getting someone into and out of a room. I had a thirty-year magazine career under my belt, had twice been a finalist for a national magazine award, but I had never before written someone into and out of room. As the Survival Editor of Field & Stream, that was understandable, though not particularly helpful.
Does the PI hear footsteps ringing on the travertine tiles? Does he imagine his visitor reading the lettering etched into the ripple glass window—BLUE RIBBON WATERCOLORS—and underneath, in discreet script, Private Investigations? Does he ask her in, or does she simply open the door? Does she assess him from a distance? Do the corners of the room grow still? In fact, she did all of that and more. It took her half a page to get into that room, and without the book in front of me, I can't remember exactly how she managed to get out.
At the time I was quite proud of the scene, though I would have done it differently today, sketched it more briefly, gotten to the point in a straighter line. Today, as I finish up my fifth Stranahan novel, getting someone into and out of rooms isn't such a daunting task. But the truth is, I do as little of it as possible. My novels, about a fly fisherman/watercolor artist/detective, are set outdoors, about four scenes out of five. I don't do this consciously or with mercenary intent to instill regional flavor and promote sales. I do it because I have lived a great part of my life outside walls, and it is much more interesting to me to set a scene in the mountains or on a trout stream or even on the porch of a cabin than it is to lock characters indoors. Describe a room to me and I fall asleep, because ceilings never change and the art hanging on the walls and the silverware on the table don’t move, and the people have nowhere to go. The exteriors of buildings aren't much better. They're simply there, a still life. But take me down the river, show me where the current curls behind the rock and the trout rise to mayflies that resemble hovering angels—if rivers were the dance floors of heaven and mayflies were angels—and I am hooked, no pun intended.
It is also, in my experience, easier to have characters speak off the cuff and to communicate more colorfully and artlessly when their speech is unconstricted by the formality that interiors impart. To revisit a scene from The Royal Wulff Murders, Sean Stranahan is talking with the eccentric English ex-pat who runs a lakeshore hotel that is in as steep a decline as he is in elegant decay.
“Don’t mind me,” Osgood said. “I strike up conversations, it's what men of my station do. Dying art, don't you think? Some of my cousins would argue that Americans never did learn how to converse, but that’s simply untrue. Perhaps you don’t speak English, but you communicate in your pidgin idiom and I’ve had some wonderful conversations with your countrymen on verandas just like this one. Porches, you call them, but I prefer the Hindu derivation. Be that as it may . . . " He stirred a finger in the lazy air of the evening, the surface of the lake shining like moonstone.
Take that scene indoors, put them at a table, and the Englishman simply bores.
So strongly do I believe in having the characters introduce their country by moving through it that the note cards I pin to the corkboard not only describe the scene but the setting. As a rule, I rearrange scenes during the rewrite only once or twice per novel, but the changes are almost always dictated by location. Two scenes in a row in which the action takes place behind walls is one too many.
Now my way is not yours, and of course many wonderful novelists place most of their books indoors. John le Carré comes to mind, and who would want him any other way? But if you are looking to take your next novel in a new direction, consider setting it where your characters can taste the air and lead the reader from here to there in terms of country, not just story.
In the interests of disclosure, I'll end by saying that setting a novel outdoors is not without peril, or isn’t here in the Rockies. In my second novel, The Gray Ghost Murders, the bodies of two men are unearthed by a grizzly bear in Montana's Madison Range, in the shadow of a peak called the Sphinx. I wrote the book twenty years after I last hiked into that country, and with first-pass pages imminent and my last chance to make significant changes, I thought I'd better hike up there and make sure I'd got it right. This was the first of May, snow lingering in the high country and grizzly bears hungry after emerging from their dens. A biologist of my acquaintance told me to hold off a week or two, as several grizzlies had recently been caught in traps and sedated for blood collection and tagging, and that when grizzly bears woke up after such rough handling, they could be aggressive. I didn’t have a week and made the climb anyway, whistling all the while and crossing bear tracks that showed claw marks four inches in front of the pad.
Later, it occurred to me that if I had died by tooth and claw, it would have been great grist for a headline: "Grizzly Bear Kills Writer Researching Grisly Murder Scene." What writer wouldn’t give the little finger of his left hand for publicity like that? Still, I'm glad I didn’t cross paths with a bear that day. Grizzlies don't always stop at little fingers and what good are book sales if you aren't around to enjoy them?