Setting the Stage

James Scott Bell

We all know the importance of details in fiction. Whether it’s the description of a place or person, the details should always do “double duty.” They ought to go beyond the mere painting of a picture and contribute to the mood you’re trying to create.

When you set up your story world, this is especially important, for the following reasons:

* Setting helps establish the fictive dream

Details make or break verisimilitude. Lisa Scottoline sets her books in her native Philadelphia for just that reason. “You can really help support a character if you understand the setting,” she said in a Time interview. “So for that reason I generally write about Philadelphia. My experience is that people extrapolate it. If you write specifically enough, they extrapolate it to their hometown, wherever that is, even if it’s Amsterdam. By the same token, if you don’t write specifically enough and you have generic Anywhere U.S.A., then nobody feels anything. The whole bottom drops out of the story.”

• Setting establishes motifs

You are wasting an opportunity if you do not find motifs in your settings. A motif is a distinctive visual that repeats. Like the green light in The Great Gatsby. It carries symbolic weight and deepens the reading experience.

For L.A. writers such as myself, the city provides a wealth of these icons. One of my favorites is Angels Flight. Allow me to riff on it just a bit.

Angels Flight is a funicular railroad (two cars going up and down in balance) that was built in 1901. It was to bring the folks living in the fashionable burb of Bunker Hill down a steep grade to the shopping area of Los Angeles. That saved them a long walk down and up steps, or getting the horse and buggy all rigged. For a penny, you could ride the cars.

Bunker Hill began to fade as the years went on. Post WWII, especially, it became a place of run down tenements and flophouses for cons and criminals to gather. But Angels Flight remained right there on 3rd Street, doing its thing.

It was going to be torn down in the late 50s, a victim of redevelopment. But a grass roots movement sprang up to save the old girl. My dad, an L.A. lawyer, was part of this. He even brought his young son downtown to ride on it in front of news cameras and the L.A. Times.

So, in a small way, I helped save Angels Flight. The city preserved it, moved it half a block south, and reopened it. An unfortunate accident took it offline for several years, but earlier this year it started running again.

I have used Angels Flight in a novel of the same name. This novel was mentioned in a great pictorial history of Angels Flight by Jim Dawson. Several film noirs have featured it over the years.

If you’re ever in downtown L.A., take a ride. You catch it on Hill Street, between 3rd and 4th, directly across from the Grand Central Market. Up at the top you can get a great view of the city of angels.

Talk about your settings. Do you have a favorite? Do you visit your locations and purposely work in the details?

Here’s a short trip on Angels Flight for your viewing pleasure.


11 thoughts on “Setting the Stage

  1. verisimilitude? funicular? Excellent words to get the gray matter swirling early in the morning.

    I’ve seen the Angels Flight in movies, often cast as a private funicular railroad to a private estate atop a hill.

  2. John, I just watched an obscure but recently restored 1961 film, The Exiles, about Native Americans in downtown L.A., living in the shadow of Angels Flight. They occupy what used to be grand Victorian homes, turned into run down rooming houses. Great b & w cinematography, and shots of the heart of the city. I think it’s out on DVD now.

  3. Great post! I’ve seen the LA version in movies and TV, but never ridden it. I have ridden the funicular in Paris (up to Sacre Couer) and it was memorable in its own right.

    Settings? Most of my tales are legal and feature offices and courtrooms. For example, I use the District Attorney’s office in Tulsa Oklahoma, circa mid-90s, as a starting point. Crowded, noisy, bad plumbing, bad ventilation, offices the size of closets (with awesome city views) and computers from the Dark Ages. It was an awesome place to be an intern). It was the mood as much as anything.

    Where I live now has a 1930s WPA courthouse and the main courtroom has a huge restored WPA Lady Justice mural. Dark wood, 25 foot ceilings, fancy moldings, rattling radiators. . . also an awesome place to work.

    Those are two of my default physical settings that I customize with local details from my research (ie, what is the exact title used for the judges, is the prosecutor a district attorney or a county attorney, stuff like that).

    Whoa! Ramble Alert! But, hey, you asked!

    Enjoy this gorgeous Sunday.


  4. Settings are critical in all my novels though for some reason I always write with England in mind (the England of the past mind you) – maybe I’ll start writing something closer to home one day!

  5. Settings are critical in all my novels though for some reason I always write with England in mind (the England of the past mind you) – maybe I’ll start writing something closer to home one day!

  6. I’ve had the fun of writing several short stories for Kayak: Canada’s History Magazine for Kids. I have the challenge of getting my readers into an historical setting as well as telling a complete story in about 1100 words. I have to be very careful about what details I choose. Every word has to be precise and evocative because I just don’t have the luxury of using a lot of them with a restricted word limit. This presents a challenge that I love and that I try to carry to my longer works. I’m one of those readers who often skims through the descriptive bits, so I write for readers like me.

  7. One of my favorite settings that I use is a fictitious hotel, the Louis Philippe, on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. It’s an understated high-end kind of place with a lounge which features well-dressed, girl-next-door type hookers. I’ve used it in several novels and short stories as well.

    My favorite Angels Flight movie is HOLLOW TRIUMPH, aka THE SCAR, a great 1948 film noir starring Paul Henreid and Joan Bennett. Henreid is on the run and is chased onto the train by a couple of thugs, one of whom is Jack Webb!!

  8. “You can really help support a character if you understand the setting…”

    I’ve used my hometown of St Augustine, Florida – the oldest city in America – for the setting in my 1st book & part of the 2nd. The haunted seaside town is quaint & mysterious – a great source for material.

    Being from the Philly area, I can see where that town could provide an awesome backdrop for a novelist.

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