The setting of your book is just as important, if not more important, than the characters themselves. Being familiar with your setting is crucial to keeping your story authentic and consistent. That’s why it’s important to do your research thoroughly. This weeks’ Killer Nashville guest blogger, Philip Cioffari, discusses his experience with knowing your settings.
Place has always been one of the strongest inspirations for my writing, and no place stronger than the place I grew up: the Bronx. Though I have set novels in other places — New Mexico in Jesusville, the everglades in Dark Road, Dead End — I keep returning to the Bronx for setting, as I did in my latest novel, The Bronx Kill.
I ask myself what is it about place that so stimulates my urge to write, but I have no ready answer. It’s one of those I-know-it-when-I-see-it kind of things. I particularly like old places, be it a funky railroad car-style diner, a pre-war tenement, Colonial or Victorian-era houses, dive bars, a deserted country road that leads to a ramshackle cabin, dank and shadowed alleys that lead to nowhere. The more time-worn the better. Without getting mystical about it, I feel a story lurking in places like these. All I have to do is uncover it — which involves both going deep inside myself as well as into the history and culture and atmosphere of the place itself.
And so, back to the Bronx.
I can’t leave it behind. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say, it won’t let me leave it behind. Though it has been more than four decades since I moved away from it — a mere seven miles but an altogether different world in New Jersey—I find myself returning to it several times a month. Field research, I call it. Keeping it alive inside me so I’m sure not to miss the stories it wants to offer. I walk the streets, visit the parks, all the old haunts. Friends and family have long since abandoned the borough, so it truly is the physical place — the brick, the playgrounds, those enduring alleys — that I’m connecting to.
Because stories don’t come to me all at once — they arrive in fragments over time — I don’t feel connected to the story until I have a firm grasp of the setting. In the case of my new novel, I had the title first. Over a decade ago, I’d been perusing a map of the Bronx and came across the name. The Bronx Kill is a channel of water (so named by the early Dutch settlers in NY) that runs between the Harlem River and the East River in the southernmost tip of the Bronx. It is a dangerous place, and very old. It’s barb-wired off from the rest of the borough, a forlorn wasteland of abandoned railroad cars and tracks, overrun by weeds and detritus: TVs, tape decks, tires, appliances of all kinds — a mishmash of things that are no longer useful. Gangs and drug dealers hang out there, as do the homeless. Bodies are sometimes dumped there.
My kind of setting — all I had to do was find the story to go along with it.
I began by writing several short stories about three teenage boys, friends since childhood who lived nearby it. I put them through several incidents which tested their values, their commitment to one another. But it wasn’t until I added a girl, Julianne, with whom they are each in love that the story began to cohere. (Bear in mind this process I’m describing occurred over a ten-year period.)
A fourth male was added — a beautiful boy known affectionately as Timmy Moon whom Julianne falls for and who, as a result, is envied by the three original friends. After this, I added the dare or challenge: On a hot August night, they decide to swim the East River from the Bronx to Queens. In the attempt, Timmy Moon drowns under questionable circumstances and Julianne’s body is never found. The three survivors take a vow never again to speak about the incident and go their separate ways.
One more element was needed to complete the story, and that came in the character of the older brother of Timmy Moon, an NYPD detective who holds them responsible for his brother’s death and vows to bring them to justice by any means possible.
So I began with setting and, piece by piece, built or found the story that belonged to that place.
Lest I’ve given the impression that the hauntings of place are mostly negative in their impact, I’d like to quote from the thoughts of my main character, Danny, towards the close of the novel.
“And walking the streets these days, despite all that had happened, he could feel with a clarity he hadn’t experienced before how much he loved even the most ordinary of things this place had to offer, like riding the EL, gazing down at rooftops and the suddenly miniaturized world of pedestrians and cars moving street to street.
And the streets themselves, the tingle he felt simply walking them, the vibrancy of sights and sounds and smells and small miracles, like the way a playground turned even the dreariest and most unlikely space into a joyful arena of games, a fortress against the ever-changing, threatening world.
In Florida he had never gotten used to the expanse of sky, the continual bright sun. Here the sky could be observed only in bits and pieces, between brick towers, through gaps in the steel webbing of the EL. So you never took it for granted; it was something you prized. Like the open space the rivers offered, so that even the grimy weeds and gnarled grasses of the Kill were things of beauty to be cherished.”
Philip Cioffari is the author of the novels: Dark Road, Dead End; Jesusville; Catholic Boys; and the short story collection, A History of Things Lost or Broken, which won the Tartt Fiction Prize, and the D. H. Lawrence award for fiction. His latest novel is The Bronx Kill (Livingston Press, 2017). His short stories have been published widely in commercial and literary magazines and anthologies, including North American Review, Playboy, Michigan Quarterly Review, Northwest Review, Florida Fiction, and Southern Humanities Review. He has written and directed for Off and Off-Off Broadway. His Indie feature film, which he wrote and directed, Love in the Age of Dion, has won numerous awards, including Best Feature Film at the Long Island Int’l Film Expo, and Best Director at the NY Independent Film & Video Festival. He is a Professor of English and director of the Performing and Literary Arts Honors Program at William Paterson University. philipcioffari.com
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