Many genre writers start with setting. Yes, they say they start with characters, or with situations, but the truth is, if you’re writing a Regency, it’ll be set in England between 1811 to 1820, give or take. If you’re writing a Scottish Medieval, then it has to be set in Scotland between the 5th and 15th centuries. If you’re writing a Western, it’ll be set west of the Mississippi (or at least rural North America), usually sometime after the first wagon train went to Oregon and before automobiles became ubiquitous. If you’re writing to the commercial market, the setting needs to be marketable, which is why Texas and Wyoming are used more than any other areas of the West.
So yes, many of us do start with setting.
Much Ado About Marshals, which is set in 1885 Owyhee County, Idaho Territory? The seeds of the idea came to me when we visited Idaho to see relatives and while there, made some research trips to local sites.
I grew up in Owyhee County, so I’d been to the former boom town, Silver City, many times, but as I stood in front of the Idaho Hotel taking in the view, the huge bank safe sparked my imagination. What if a desperate bumbling cowhand botches up a bank robbery, is saved by his sensible friend, but then his friend is shot? Hmmm.
Setting and character were on equal footing at this point—couldn’t have one without the other. Why? Because the bank and its proximity to the other buildings in Silver City were firmly a part of the story. Besides, the sensible friend is Cole Richards and he has a ranch on Sinker Creek. The bumbling cowhand is Bosco Kunkle and he’s Cole’s best friend. Okay, so I moved geography around a little. Writers can do this.
As I contemplated that scenario, we stopped by Our Lady Queen of Heaven Catholic Church in Oreana. Even though I grew up not far from there, I never knew that the church was originally built as a general store by stonemasons John Pierson and Jim Kelly, the best stonemasons in the area. A store! It’s a good-sized rock building and was actually built later than my story is set, probably 1888, but is typical of the rock buildings constructed during the 1870s and 1880s. My book is set in 1885 so I felt comfortable using the building.
(To read more about the history of the church in Oreana, visit St. Paul's website. The graphic above is from there.)
Aha! In my mind, I saw a vivacious young woman run down the steps, carrying a package. She has a purpose and no one can stop her. Her name is Daisy Gardner. The store is Gardner’s Mercantile, owned and operated by her father. An aside note—I’ve always thought Oreana was the prettiest name for a town, and so I envisioned a lively little town full of fun characters. It was the perfect place for Bosco to take Cole for medical care.
That little rock building behind the store-now-church? It was originally a saloon—extremely small, with room for maybe three customers. Short ones. I was told that men came in to buy their drinks but usually went outside to socialize and play cards while imbibing.
And no, the real Oreana isn’t on the way to Sinker Creek from Silver City, so I moved it, too. Literary license, you know. Bustling? Hardly. (See Google Maps satellite photo above. Yes, that's the whole town for real, and it never was any more populated.)
So let’s say the editor wanted this story set in Boston. First problem is law and order—Boston had some, but Owyhee County wasn’t nearly as “civilized.” (Many would contend that’s still true, but in my opinion it depends on your definition.) At least 50% of the events could never have happened in Boston or any metropolitan area. Worse, Cole would never have been accepted by the city fathers, and Daisy would’ve been ostracized by society for her behavior. This story simply can’t be moved.
The point of all this is to not underestimate the value of setting. When well written, setting emphasizes conflict and every aspect of a character’s decisions. Writers: how do you use setting to the best effect in your stories? Readers: how does setting influence your perception of the characters? Would Hondo be the same character if the story took place in New Orleans or Paris?
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♥ Hearts of Owyhee ♥ series