When I decided to write a novel it was natural to me to set the characters in motion in a setting that offered myriad opportunities to use landmarks and ambience to advance the plot and affect the characters’ thoughts and behavior. Because I am familiar with Rome, Italy, a city of romance and intrigue, I used that city. A city where there an opportunity to use Egyptian obelisks piercing the sky for Laura to wonder about the meaning of her new life, cobblestones to evoke the historic center, fantastic food to share with a lover, evocative moonlit ruins, museums with enigmatic paintings to ponder, and cloisters for assignations.
A number of readers have confirmed my feeling that the setting can be a character in a novel. Rome is a character in City of Illusions when it shapes Laura’s destiny as she searches for a new life far away from the gray city of Seattle. And it is a character when Jake, her husband, is so numbed by the overwhelming sensations that he becomes unable to capture the city with his paints.
A place molds characters’ lives. The novel could have been set in a different location but it would have been a different story. If Laura and Jake moved to London filled with pageantry and royal palaces or Paris with its 19th Century buildings and wide boulevards they would have been different people by the end of the year. Different weather, different food, different architecture. No ruins, no Vatican, no Trevi Fountain where Laura tosses in a coin to make a wish. Would Laura have found life so difficult in an English-speaking city with its Anglo-Saxon lifestyle; would Jake have become involved in antiquity theft when he was not surrounded by them? Unlikely.
What do you want your characters to experience? If the story is only about interior lives the setting will fade into the background and become unimportant. But if the story needs action and color the choice of setting will inform the story. Will the characters have a car chase? How about the twisting roads along the French Rivera as in To Catch of Thief? Will the characters fight for their country or empire? You will have a different story if the setting is the South during the Civil War or a fantasy world of the future like the Star Wars series even though the big themes of our existence always remain the same.
I often select novels for my reading list by their settings – London during World War II, Paris in the Jazz Age, contemporary life on the barren Great Plains, or Shanghai during the Japanese occupation. Not only do I want to know the characters’ personal journey, but I want to learn what it is like to live where and when they did. Did bombing in London affect their actions by making them timid or brave, did the wind and blizzards roaring over the Plains cause them to become quiet and resilient? Did they experience terror in a concentration camp? And how would I react to those experiences if I was in their place and time?
The setting provides you, the author, with an opportunity to move your characters thoughts and actions in response to the world they find themselves in – a world your readers want to know about as they follow the story.
A yearning for change puts Laura on the road to Rome but her marital problems, muted in cool Seattle, become magnified in the glare of the Roman sun. Will she find happiness in the Eternal City or are her dreams only an illusion?
Links to purchase City of Illusions:
She recognized the inertia of their marriage had been roiled by the move to Italy, although it wasn’t in the manner she intended. Instead of coming closer, a centrifugal force had whirled them into seldom- intersecting elliptical orbits, hers energized, his wobbly. Whatever the difficulties of living in Rome were, she was becoming increasingly sure that she would find a more fulfilling life in Rome rather than Seattle. With or without Jake.
She turned back to her work, but the day passed slowly as she worried about him and her parents’ visit. As she expected, the evening wasn’t any better. Jake watched another inane spettacolo with bouncing babes on TV while they ate dinner. In an effort to appear as if married life was normal, after the dishes were done Laura said she was going to get ready for bed. Jake ignored the hint. She was washing her hands when she heard him come into the bathroom. She looked in the mirror to see his face hovering over her shoulder.
“It’s not what you think. I delivered stuff to a gallery for sale. We might even get a cut of the profits. It’s interesting to be a part of the action. I’ll be helping restore a few old artworks so others have a chance to enjoy them. Otherwise they would just rot in some moldy old church or castle. You should be proud of me instead of picking all the time.”
Laura tried a smile. Then she gave him the bad news. “Well, we’ve got a small problem: my mom and dad are coming in February for ten days. They expect the weather to be warm and that you will take them around the whole time.”
“Are you kidding? No way – I’m not a tour guide. What were you thinking to agree to this? We don’t have a car. And I’m busy. This is insane.”
He marched off to his spot in front of the television, leaving Laura holding the toothpaste, squeezed in the middle instead of from the bottom as she liked. She carefully rolled the tube, flattening the used portions.
AUTHOR Bio and Links:
Life was routine until the author decided to get a law degree. Then a chance meeting led her to run away to the Circus (Maximus) – actually to the United Nations office next door – where she worked as an attorney in the HR department and entered the world of expat life in Rome. The ten years of happy and sometimes fraught experiences are the subject of her memoir, Coins in the Fountain. She continues to travel, having visited over 100 countries in between many journeys to Italy where she always tosses a coin in the Trevi Fountain to ensure a return to Rome. Judith and her husband now live near Seattle where she is working on her second novel.
BOOK TRAILER: bit.ly/COIYouTubeTrailer OR http://youtu.be/8EsGi2sdVII
Coins in the Fountain
Judith has a BS in Psychology, M Public Administration, JD from Lewis & Clark School of Law. She has spent most of her career in Human Resources administration. Judith is a member of Northwest Women Writers, past President of Edmonds Friends of the Library, board member for Edmonds Center of the Arts, vice-president EPIC Group Writers, and a member of PNWA and Willamette Writers.