Experience & Setting

When you live in different places, and later try to write about the experiences you had in them, how much do you paint from the external and how much do you bring from within? Which is the better way? Which conveys a better sense of place?

When I commenced writing my latest novel, Milltown, someone lectured me that I hadn’t lived in a small town in Ontario long enough to write about one. After all, I hadn’t gone to school in one, never worked in one, hadn’t played hockey and gone drinking with the guys on Friday nights, never had sex in the back seats of cars at drive•ins when I was a randy young adolescent – how dare I write about life in a small town? I pleaded “guilty” to all those experiences, guilty for having committed them all somewhere else (except perhaps the hockey – would cricket count?), and “not guilty” for having perpetrated them in a small town in Canada. That said, they were no less thrilling wherever I had experienced them – be it in a big city, on a tropical island or in a desert oasis.

When writing about settings from within, the danger is that you also bring back the experiences which occurred in those places. Therefore the experience and the setting become inter•twined, and inseparable, and the experience is non transferable to a new locale. The writing may be more authentic, but the writer is stuck in his time and place warp.

Therefore, for this novel, my settings are written from the outside in, just as “method” actors do, just like landscape painters turn out masterpieces by sitting in a location and absorbing the scene in all its permutations and in all weathers and at all times of day. I am writing setting by observation, while transposing experiences from within, wherever they occurred, because human experience is universal.
That is why I like writing setting from the outside in, because I can transplant the experience, whether it was drinking with the boys or having sex in the back seats of cars, and place it wherever I want it – either in a big city or in a small town. I just have to change the props, but the experience and the emotions behind them, are still the same.

Setting is important, for without it, characters have no context, history has no colour and the stage has no backdrop. But setting can be separated from experience because the latter is transportable, the former is not. I bet you an orphan boy under threat for his life feels the same fear (i.e. experience) today that Oliver Twist did in his day; the present•day orphan probably has more solutions (i.e. props) at his disposal to alleviate that fear than poor Oliver had, because his setting is different.